You're Probably Being Tracked Online Right Now. Here's How to Protect Yourself.
Starbucks added a then-groundbreaking item to its menu in 2010: free Wi-Fi access via AT&T. Stephen Gillett, the coffee giant's chief information officer at the time, told The New York Times that the network was meant to serve as a "very versatile tool for people who are using Starbucks for what we call the third place, between home and work."
That "third place" can now be found beyond the exposed brick walls of your local café. It's in the hotel where you stayed at your last business trip, on a bench at the grassy park near your apartment, and at the McDonald's where you stopped to get a McMuffin this morning on your way to work. It's public Wi-Fi access, and it's virtually ubiquitous.
Connecting to a public Wi-Fi network will rarely cost you money, but you do pay a price for its convenience in the form of privacy loss. You see, "T-Mobile and AT&T—the largest providers of Wi-Fi hotspots in coffee shops, bookstores, and airports—don't require encryption of data traveling wirelessly between laptops and the Internet," ABC News reported. "Neither do hotels and municipalities with free Wi-Fi hookups in public areas."
Essentially, you put yourself and your data—pictures, emails, bank account passwords, what have you—at risk to hackers every time you connect to a public Wi-Fi network. And that's on top of the data lurking that your internet service provider (ISP) may already be doing.
Fortunately, the remedy to this digital threat is simple: sign up for a virtual private network (VPN), a service that lets you create a safe, secure network using a public internet connection. A VPN encrypts all of your traffic while concealing your IP address so that your online activity is completely private and protected, hidden even from your ISP, as The VPN Guru points out.
Although a VPN has a few minor downsides—they're not free, for one, and they'll slow down your connection speed by just a bit, per Lifewire—there are several compelling reasons to invest in such a service.
You can use public Wi-Fi in confidence.
As previously mentioned, Wi-Fi networks at hotels, restaurants, and other public places are vulnerable to interception—not just because the traffic isn't encrypted, but because a network isn't always as it seems. Max Eddy of PC Mag puts it well: "Just because it's called Starbucks, Wi-Fi doesn't mean it's really owned by a well-known coffee purveyor."
If you're someone who travels frequently or works on the go, you'd be smart to lock down your online activity and identity by encrypting your traffic.
You can download and upload P2P files in privacy.
The MPAA, among other authorities, has been known to monitor ISP connections in order to catch users sharing movies, music, and other files. P2P users can also be traced through their IP addresses, which are added to torrent swarms when files are downloaded through P2P software.
Do you engage in the occasional P2P sharing? Do you want to avoid a copyright lawsuit? Get a VPN.
You can watch home-specific broadcasts while you're traveling.
Want to watch Hulu at your Airbnb in Madrid? Sorry, it's not available to viewers outside of the U.S. even if you have a subscription back home. If you have a VPN, however, you can easily bypass the geographical restrictions of your favorite streaming services—and even access local sporting events and news broadcasts—while you're abroad.
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