Wireless network connection & security guide
Staying connected is becoming an increasingly important part of our daily lives. You may need to keep up-to-date with work emails, you may have spotted a bargain online or you might just want to track the football scores. Without an internet connection you’re likely going to feel a little cut off from the outside world.
If you’re at home then things are relatively straightforward, as you probably have a secure home wireless network to connect to. However, when you’re out and about things can get a little more complicated, and it’s easy to get confused in a muddle of abbreviations and acronyms. So, let’s try to clear the airwaves a bit and help you make some sense of your wireless world.
What can I connect to?
Any mobile device will be able to connect to at least one of these network types. We have analysed each type of network connection to help explain how it works and any safety concerns you should have when taking advantage of them. If you looking for a specific connection type, feel free to skip through ’til you find it.
Mobile data networks – these are internet connections provided by the mobile phone networks. Usually referred to as 3G or HSDPA, any smartphone will have this kind of connection. Some tablet models also have mobile connectivity, those variants usually be branded as “3G+Wifi” and will have a slot for a SIM card. If you want to use this kind of connection with a laptop then you’ll need to purchase a dongle from one of the networks, it’s rare to find laptops with this functionality built in but they are out there if it’s something you’re in desperate need of.
Is it safe? Using your mobile internet connection is no more risky than using your home internet connection. You’re communicating directly with the mobile network provider so there’s no third-party involved. The main drawback is that it’s a mobile signal so the connection is dependent on network coverage.
Secured wireless networks – the same as your home or work wireless connection, these are just other people’s routers that are currently in range of your device. Just like your home network they’ll be password-protected, if you know the owner they can provide you with the password and you can connect to the network.
Is it safe? As long as you trust the owner of the network then there’s no reason to worry about connecting, if you’re at a friend’s house you can happily share their Wi-Fi connection if they provide the password. If a network has a password it also means that any traffic over that network is encrypted, so even if it was intercepted the data would be unreadable. However, your data is being transmitted through somebody else’s equipment, so they could potentially have access to any information sent through it. The likelihood of that happening is very small, but if you have any concerns or don’t know the owner of the network particularly well you may wish to avoid using sites and services that use logins or personal details.
Unsecured wireless networks – again these are just other people’s routers that are currently in range of your device. However unlike your home network these have been left without password protection which means anyone in range of them can connect.
Is it safe? Unsecured networks can be a bit of a minefield; whilst the majority of them are simply networks that have been incorrectly set up, it has been known for hackers to setup unsecured networks as "phishing spots", in an attempt to steal information. Traffic through an unsecured network is unencrypted, so it’s easier for somebody to intercept information, therefore my advice would be to avoid unsecured networks as it's best not to take chances with your data. The added complication of unsecured networks is that any Wi-Fi enabled device can connect to them automatically, so it’s good practice to get yourself into the habit of turning Wi-Fi off when you’re not using it.
Managed/Subscriber wireless networks – functionally these are the same as secure wireless networks, but they usually require you to have some kind of account to use them. Public networks in coffee shops, bars and hotels often work in this way and some networks also provide similar services such as BT’s BTFON network. These networks will appear as unsecured but when connected you will only have access to the providers web page, you’ll need to log in with a user name and password before you can get full internet access.
Is it safe? These networks should be just as safe as any other secured network, however they can be a bit of a nuisance as devices may connect to them automatically giving you restricted access. So if you’re out and about and Facebook suddenly won’t connect it’s worth turning off Wi-Fi in case your device has hooked onto one of these networks. It is possible that somebody could create a fake network for malicious reasons, but usually the landing page will have a recognisable company name on it, obviously if you’re unsure or don’t recognise the branding then the safest thing is to avoid the network.
Avoid unsecured wireless networks, there’s no way of knowing who operates them and there’s no encryption on the data being transmittedUsing the internet on the move isn’t usually any more risky than using it at home, as long as you’re browsing reputable sites it shouldn’t pose any problems. Below, we’ll sum up the key points together with a few additional hints and tips to help keep you connected and safe.
- Watch out for your device automatically connecting to managed networks, leaving you with restricted access
- Turning off Wi-Fi when it’s not needed will not only take care of the first two points, it’ll also improve your battery life a bit
- Secured wireless networks will provide safe internet access as long as you have the correct password
- On any connection, never send payment details via email, any reputable seller will accept payment details direct through their site or use a service like PayPal
- Likewise, never send bank details or passwords over email; the bank themselves will never request them. If you receive an email claiming to be from your bank you can always phone them to query it
- Ideally use the bank’s own app for online banking rather than navigating to the site on your mobile browser when on any type of connection