Hotels & Coffee Shops – How to Use Free WiFi Safely and Anonymously


I use my phone, tablet, and laptop heavily while traveling. Often, this is at technical conferences where I’m surrounded by highly skilled computer buffs, all jammed into the same hotel, and all leveraging the internet. Under such circumstances, my naturally suspicious nature and technological experience combine, whipping me into a state of frothy paranoia. The concern here is that some bad agent is either eavesdropping on all traffic on the free WiFi, or that someone has created a fake WiFi access point – a kind of evil twin – for nefarious purposes. That’s ok, I know how to protect myself, and it’s easy to do.

In the old days, I bypassed free WiFi access entirely by tethering my laptop or tablet to my cell phone. This was easily done by turning my phone into a personal hotspot. In this mode, my laptop would connect to my phone as it would any other WiFi connection, and all internet access would use my phone’s cellular connection, bypassing the hotel’s infrastructure, entirely. For people with limited data plans, or if the cell signal was weak, this method could be challenging.

Now, I use a VPN (Virtual Private Network) service for everything. On my phone, tablet, or laptop, I run an app that creates an encrypted tunnel to a cloud service. After that, all of my internet traffic is sent (and received), encrypted, to that online host where they act as a kind of remailing service for internet traffic. To the hotel, coffee shop, and even my ISP, I am a random person communicating with a random website. In an age where ISP’s are allowed to collect my information for marketing purposes, I consider this a benefit.

However, a VPN doesn’t stop the website you eventually connect to from noting what you do there. When you log into Facebook, they know who you are and what you are doing on their site. Indeed, they are actively collecting everything about you they can. But you can feel pretty secure that no one between you and them know who you are, and no one at the free WiFi location can snoop on you.

Many VPN services cost less than $5/month – peanuts for road warriors and people dealing with sensitive information.  That said, not all VPN services were created equal. TheBestVPN tested 74 services and found that 15 of them leaked information. Have no fear! CNET recently published the Best VPN Services for 2018. I admit that it was comforting to see that mine was on their top 5 list.

The world can seem like a scary place, but protecting yourself is actually easy and inexpensive. Sign up for a VPN service, install the app, and enjoy your secure anonymity.


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