The Idiot-Proof Way To Securely Use Public Wi-Fi

We talk a lot on this blog about personal data and privacy, but not so much about how to secure that data on your own computer. That’s because a.) we’re not Lifehacker and b.) the solutions frequently bloat into crazy, jargon-filled recipes that scare away the non-IT crowd. Not this time! For all you novices, here is a single idea you should consider that will help keep your personal data personal, and make your identity that much harder to steal.

Install a VPN program and run it every time you go online using a public Wi-Fi hotspot.

Using a public Wi-Fi spot without a VPN is like shouting everything across the room in plain English—anyone who wants to listen in, can. Using a VPN is more like shouting in a made-up language that only you and your twin sibling understand. A VPN will encrypt anything you send from your laptop to the Wi-Fi router, so that nobody else in the coffee shop, student center, or hotel can see what you’re doing.

If you work for a large company, odds are your IT department has already got you using a VPN when you’re traveling or working away from the office. If you’re everyone else—a freelancer, a student, a small business owner with one or two computers and no real “back-end” system—then many of those VPN solutions are out of your reach. Either they’re too complicated to set up without computer skillz or they’re too expensive.

Luckily, there are cheap VPN programs you can install on your laptop that are more or less self-contained: you install the app, then launch it when you log on to a Wi-Fi network, and everything you do online from that point forward will be encrypted. There’s also a hardware-based solution—a USB drive that you can plug into any computer for a quick VPN environment.

A couple of things to note:

  1. When the website you’re on uses https, your data is already encrypted. For some Google-based services (like Gmail and Google Docs), you’ll be using https automatically or you can add the “s” yourself to force the encryption. But not every site offers this extra security.
  2. These VPN programs are not the end-all in security solutions. If you’re really serious about security, don’t get your advice from this blog. Find a skilled computer security technician to help you set up an awesome home-based VPN solution (where you route all your laptop traffic through a home network remotely), or teach yourself how to do it with freeware and your router.

So with those caveats, here are some options you can consider. The first two programs listed below install the same as any other app, but I haven’t tested the other three. If you’ve tried any of these and can share an opinion, please join in the comments below.

AnchorFree’s Hotspot Shield
Free, but ad-supported. While browsing, you’ll see ads appear occasionally at the top of the browser window. It’s great if you infrequently need it, but annoying if you find yourself in a Starbucks once a week.

Witopia’s PersonalVPN
$40 per year

$9 per month (listed as a temporary price reduction as of October 2008)

Free with a 10MB cap / $30 for 30GB of data transfer

$70 per year, or $7 per month

About that hardware solution: IronKey is a USB flash drive that offers a few extra features you can’t get with the software above. It encrypts any files you store on it, and it comes with its own VPN software that runs automatically when you plug it into a Windows PC. It comes with the Firefox browser included, so you can surf the web through the IronKey no matter what PC you’re using. It costs $80 for a 1 GB drive with a 1-year VPN subscription.

And finally, Consumerist reader Ein2015, who provided an invaluable service by vetting this article before I posted it, pointed out that there’s an awesome open source VPN solution called OpenVPN. It’s cross-platform and free, so if you’re feeling techy and want to set up your own virtual private network using your home computers, you might check it out.

(Many, many thanks to Ein2015!)
(Photo: Getty Images and stevecadman)