It’s back-to-school season, and if you like to surf the Internet while at the library (or even file your taxes), remember that nearly all library WiFi networks are completely open. This means that anything you – or your children — do online at the library could potentially be seen and intercepted by another person on the same network.
Public WiFi, whether it’s at your local coffee shop, at the mall, or even at the library is just that: public. Some of us might assume that a library WiFi network may have some safeguards to protect our privacy, but that’s not the case.
Libraries and libraries are committed to protecting our privacy, as seen from the Code of Ethics of the American Library Association:
“We protect each library user’s right to privacy and confidentiality with respect to information sought or received and resources consulted, borrowed, acquired or transmitted.”
But library staff members are often overworked and many libraries are underfunded, so dealing with the WiFi network is left to the domain of the library’s IT department. Librarians (like many of us) often don’t understand the risks inherent to public WiFi networks and what users need to do to protect themselves. So the default stance of most libraries, like many other WiFi providers, is to simply bury the risks of public WiFi in the Terms and Conditions you must accept before logging into their network.
Don’t believe us? Below are some actual Terms and Conditions from various library WiFi systems around the country:
New York Public Library
“The Library’s wireless network is not secure. Information sent from or to your laptop can be captured by anyone else with a wireless device and the appropriate software, within three hundred feet.”
UC Santa Barbara
“The UCSB Wireless is not secure. Information sent from or to your laptop can be captured by anyone with the appropriate equipment and technology.”
Oakland Public Library
“Information passing through the Library’s wireless access is not secured and could be monitored, captured, or altered by others. There are risks involved with connecting to a public wireless connection, such as possible viruses, malware, loss of data, possible hacking/snooping by others connected, possible hardware/software failure. It is your sole responsibility to protect your information from all risks associated with using the Internet, including any damage, loss, or theft that may occur as a result of your use of the Library’s wireless access.”
Staying Safe on Library WiFi
Below are some tips you can use to make sure that you and your children are being as safe as you can be whenever you login to your library’s WiFi network:
- Make sure your computer contains all the latest software patches, your firewall is turned on, and your security software is up-to-date.
- Make sure you turn off your computer’s printer and file-sharing options.
- Make sure all your passwords are complex. Use different passwords for each website and don’t automatically save them. A great free tool for keeping track of your passwords is LastPass.
- Turn off any computer setting that automatically connects you to any available wireless network. This will prevent you from accidentally connecting to a stranger’s computer or to a fake WiFi hotspot designed to steal your information.
- Turn off your WiFi connection when you’re not using it.
- Use a VPN like PRIVATE WiFi to protect your sensitive information whenever you use a WiFi hotspot. VPNs encrypt the data traveling to and from your computer and make you invisible to identity thieves.