Public Wi-Fi networks at coffee shops, fast food chains and airports can be lifesavers when you're in a pinch. You can check social media sites and email, browse the internet, shop and communicate online without putting a dent in your cellular data plan. Use this free app to find Wi-Fi anywhere you go.
Unfortunately, if an opportunistic hacker is on the same network, it gives them a good chance of snooping on what you're doing or even taking over your accounts.
Aside from hackers, the government and internet service providers can also monitor your connection to see where you go, and, if they want, what you do. If you aren't a fan of that, and few people are, there is a way you can keep these parties out of your business.
If you're on public Wi-Fi, consider using a Virtual Private Network (VPN) to secure and encrypt your connection.
What is a VPN?
In the business world, VPNs let remote off-site employees create an encrypted connection with their company network so they can work safely.
Windows and Mac both have VPN features built in for this purpose. However, for the average home user or traveler, these aren't very helpful because you need a network to connect to. That's where a third-party VPN service comes in handy.
A VPN service lets you create an encrypted connection with one of its servers, and you use that server to browse the internet. The connection is encrypted through the server, so the VPN can't see your traffic either. OK, it's a bit more complicated than that behind the scenes, but that's the result.
To start, you need to choose a program or service to use. There are dozens that offer a variety of security features, privacy options, server locations and other considerations.
Note: If you're searching for VPNs, you'll see VPN services and "proxy" services. A proxy service can disguise your computer's identity, but it doesn't necessarily encrypt your connection. Always go with a VPN for security.
For the average user, it's important to make sure the service has U.S.-based servers, know how much bandwidth you can use per session or month, and to know that it doesn't keep logs of your activity. Paid services will require some personal information and payment information, naturally, but you can find one that minimizes what it needs to know.
Some services will accept prepaid cards and alternative payments that are more difficult to trace back to you. However, even if you give the service your information, as long as it doesn't keep logs of what you do with the service, then it doesn't matter so much.
For PCs, Macs and Android smartphones and tablets, CyberGhost is a popular free option that has strong encryption, unlimited bandwidth and doesn't store logs. If you decide on a paid plan, there's an Apple app as well, plus you get access to more servers around the world.
Hotspot Shield VPN is a good app for Apple and Android gadgets and has more than 300 million downloads. You get to choose your server location, and it also blocks viruses and phishing attempts before they get to your gadget. There are also Windows and Mac versions; however, the free software has ads.
Exclusively available for Apple MacOS and iOS is another VPN service called Cloak. With this application, just mark certain networks as "trusted" and it will automatically secure your connection whenever you're not in one of them. Cloak's service is not free; it offers two monthly subscriptions: a 5 GB mini plan for $2.99 and an unlimited data plan for $9.99. You can try it out for free for 14 days.