The 3 things IT departments should tell users about public Wi-Fi

It’s great to have anytime, anywhere access, but security can’t be forgotten. Some practical advice for workers using wireless Internet services at the local café

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We know all those folks settled in at Starbucks with the foamy drinks and open MacBooks aren’t just playing solitaire. Many are accessing sensitive business information and opening secure documents with usernames and passwords. Public Wi-Fi is notoriously porous. But people keep using it nonetheless—and will keep using it despite dire warnings from security professionals.

As an IT decision maker, you walk the line between giving employees technological freedom and safeguarding confidential information. This balancing act is especially important for public-sector organizations that have adopted bring-your-own-device (BYOD) and other IT-decentralizing programs to boost employee productivity and improve job satisfaction. Reports and case studies tell us young workers want the freedom to work where and when they want. If your organization’s hot new recruits say they’re most productive tapping away at the local café, it’s hard to tell them they’re not allowed to leave the office. Still, your data needs to be protected.

Here are three tips to help IT leaders in government and other organizations maintain security when employees use less-than-secure public Wi-Fi. The following solutions are realistic yet not painfully obvious.

1. Invest in a privacy screen

When you use your laptop or tablet at the coffee shop, people could easily peek over your shoulder and see usernames and other sensitive information. A privacy screen makes it difficult for anyone but you to see the display. Companies including 3M and Kensington sell reasonably priced aftermarket privacy screens. Buy one.

SEE ALSO: Hack your way to an IT security career that lasts.

2. Check your spelling

Black-hat hackers sometimes establish false networks with similar names to lure unsuspecting users. If you connect to one of these “evil twin” networks, hackers may snoop on your computer for sensitive information. Verify the correct spelling of the name of the Wi-Fi network before you log on.

3. Turn off automatic updates

This tip might seem counterintuitive. After all, auto updates are meant to ensure your software has the latest security features. But save those updates for a time when you’re not on public Wi-Fi. In a CSO magazine piece, Bogdan Botezatu, senior e-threat analyst at security company Bitdefender, says hackers can use auto updates to slip malware into the data stream and compromise your mobile device. Slam that door shut.

Bonus advice for IT managers: share these tips with users by showing them what they should see onscreen. That may sound basic, but too many IT pros assume users know what to do after a simple email or information session. Roberta Fox, head of communications technology consultancy Fox Group Consulting, notes that “sometimes users don’t understand how to do these things. Most employees don’t want their phones or tablets hacked. So show them how to protect themselves.”

It beats getting a virus with that venti.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at

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