What Does "WiFi Connection Unsecured" Mean?
By Matt Koble
Wi-Fi connections feature varying levels of security and encryption to help protect your data from other users on the network. If you're using an unsecured network, it means none of these security measures are in place. This could put you and your computer at risk of snooping users spying on what you're doing and potentially stealing information from you.
Network security is controlled through your router, though you can edit these settings within Windows. When you connect to an unsecured network, data is sent and received with no protection or encryption. Anyone with the know-how could easily intercept the data without the need to decrypt it. As of September 2013, most routers offer WEP, WPA and WPA2 encryption. The options password protect the connection so people without the password can't access the network. Furthermore, they encode the data sent to and from your computer via the network, making it much more difficult for any would-be data thieves to make you a target.
When you're viewing available Wi-Fi network in Windows, you'll see a notification if the network is not secured. The notification means the router and network don't use WEP, WPA or WPA2 encryption. Depending on your Windows settings, you may have a security measure in place that prevents you from connecting -- or staying connected -- to an unsecured network. Microsoft provides instructions for disabling this feature in Windows 8 (link in Resources).
Some public networks -- like those found in coffee shops, hotels and restaurants -- intentionally leave their networks unsecured. This makes it easier for guests to connect, since the business doesn't have to give each new guest a password. Since you can't alter the network encryption settings on public connections, it's important to protect yourself with other methods. Chief among these is a software firewall. While your firewall isn't a fool-proof protection plan, it goes a long way in monitoring and blocking any bad connections, like the kind hackers use to spy on your activity. The PCWorld technology news website also suggests purchasing a subscription to a Virtual Private Network if you regularly use unsecured networks. While prices vary, VPNs handle data in a secure fashion that is much harder to spy on than a user without a VPN.
Perils of Unsecured Surfing
In a June 2013 PCWorld article, Eric Geier, founder of a cloud-based Wi-Fi security service, reported how he was able to capture Web pages from other users over an unsecured network. This could lead to disaster if you're visiting pages with sensitive information, like your bank account or other sites containing personal data. The site also found they could hijack Web service accounts like Web-based email, Facebook and LinkedIn using a simple Android app.
If you find yourself somewhere that offers only an unsecured connection, a few key tips can improve your chance of safety. First, only use sites featuring secure socket layer connections. The easiest way to tell whether a site uses SSL is to look at the address bar. If the URL begins with "HTTPS," the connection is more secure than those that read "HTTP." The Life Hacker website also suggests you disable printer and file sharing through the Windows control panel so prying eyes can't access your computer's files.
Matt Koble has been writing professionally since 2008. He has been published on websites such as DoItYourself. Koble mostly writes about technology, electronics and computer topics.