One of the perks of being a freelancer is that you get to travel. It’s not always to glamourous locales but between meeting people for interviews, working at conferences and, occassionally, working in cafes, libraries and co-working spaces you may find yourself needing to use an internet connection that might not be as trustworthy as you’d like. So, how do you stay safe online when you’re away from the safety of your home office? Here are some tips.
Use cellular data to avoid public Wi-Fi
Assuming that you use a smartphone, you can use its data connection with your tablet or laptop. The process is sometimes called tethering or connection sharing. This means you can avoid using public Wi-Fi.
Public Wi-Fi sounds really handy but it’s trivially easy for bad guys to use it to stream data or access your machine surreptitiously.
Tethering works in several different ways, depending on whether you’re using an iPhone or a smartphone running Android, but I’ve always found the easiest is to connect the phone to a laptop using the charging and sync cable the phone came with.
If you’re planning use your smartphone with a tablet and can’t use the cable, there are wireless options that use the Bluetooth or Wi-Fi capability of both devices.
Encrypt whenever you can
Encryption sounds scary and complex but it’s been made very easy. for a start, you can look at the websites you are accessing. If there’s a padlock adjacent to the site’s address in your browser, then the website is using encryption to reduce the risk of someone snooping on your browser session. Any activity between you and the website will be encrypted so no one can listen in on your online conversation or interaction with that site.
With your computer, smartphone or tablet, ensure that it’s contents are encrypted and protected with a string, hard to guess, passcode.
Apple’s macOS and Microsoft Windows provide options for encrypting your hard drive. That will ensure that if your computer is lost or stolen, that the bad guys can’t disassemble the computer and access to your data by extracting the hard drive.
With smartphones and tablets, the makers of those devices encrypt all the contents – as long as you use a passcode or some other tool, such as a fingerprint or facial recognition, to prevent your device from being used by an unauthorised party.
Secure messaging services
Many journalists need to ensure their communications are kept secure and that, even if their device is stolen or accessed by an authorised party, and messages they sent and received are kept away from prying eyes.
Tools like WhatsApp, Telegram and Signal not only encrypt all your incoming and outgoing messages but provide options for automatically erasing messages after a prescribed period so messages only exist for a set time.
For example, if you set the message expiry to an hour, messages will automatically be erased forever after that time expires.
If you have to public Wi-Fi, use a VPN
There are times when access to cellular data is limited. On those occasions, you may have no choice other than to use a public Wi-Fi connection or someone else’s network. That’s where Virtual Private Network (VPN) software comes in.
If you imagine the internet is like an ocean and anyone can see whatever you throw in. That’s, more or less, what the Internet is like. It was made to be wide open with very little privacy.
A VPN uses encryption to create a private water pipe that runs through that ocean. Whenever you try to access a website, or an app uses the Internet to access some information, that request is sent in an encrypted form to a VPN provider who carries out the request on your behalf and transmits the data to to you.
There are free VPN services. I’d suggest avoiding those as the companies providing them need to make some money. One way is by selling your browsing data to advertisers.
Choosing a VPN is tricky as they are quite hard to evaluate. I use NordVPN as I’ve found them to be reliable and have a good reputation. But you should do your own research.
Keep your devices updated
It’s easy with all the busyness of the freelance life to let system updates for your devices slip by. But those updates are important. In many cases, the companies providing you with your hardware and software are aware of major security problems and they fix them before they become public.
Keeping your system updated is one of the best things you can do to keep your main working tools secure. It’s a big enough deal that the Australian Signals Directorate, the agency charged with protecting national infrastructure says keeping your operating system and applications updated are two of the most important things you can do to keep your self safe online.