Wi-Fi 101: How to Tell If Your Connection is Not Private

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iStock

Free and readily-accessible Wi-Fi is just about everywhere these days, including cafes, hotels, airports, bars, offices, subway stations, and even public parks. But how do you know that the network you're using will keep your personal information protected? While most wireless routers and laptops have built-in firewall protections, just about anyone connected to the same network could peer into your device and view your activity without you even knowing it, even when you're online in the comfort of your very own home.

Fortunately, most modern browsers—including Apple’s Safari, Microsoft Edge, and Google Chrome—have privacy features built-in, but every now and then an error message stating something like “Your Connection Is Not Private” may pop up on your browser and prevent you from visiting an unsafe website (which doesn't necessarily mean a website or your connection is corrupted; there are multiple reasons why this error warning can be triggered). There are a few ways to tell whether your connection is secure from hackers who want your passwords, credit card information, or other information you want to keep private.

First off, make sure you see a padlock icon next to the Wi-Fi icon in your computer's toolbar or, if you're using Windows, that there is a security type mentioned in the “Security” tab to make sure you’re on a password-protected and private network. And before you part with any money or passwords online, make sure you see

https://” instead of the commonly used “http://” at the beginning of the URL, which is an easy way to make sure you're on a secure site. You can also look for a closed padlock icon on the browser toolbar itself; this is an extra layer of protection that verifies websites as legitimate and uncompromised, and encrypts your personal info from end-to-end, so that hackers can’t read it.

Most Internet browsers also have a private or incognito browsing feature under the “File” tab, which automatically clears your browsing and search history and doesn't store Internet cookies for tracking services or ad targeting. While this feature “hides” your web activity, it doesn't make you invisible from internet service providers, employers, or the websites themselves.

Although it might enable your device to “talk” to other internet-enabled devices in your home or office, like a printer, you also want to turn off sharing on your laptop once you’re in public. Sharing can allow anyone on your Wi-Fi network to access files and folders on your device.

On a PC, open the “Control Panel,” click “Network and Internet,” and then “Choose Change Advanced Sharing Settings.” From here you can turn off file and printer sharing. Furthermore, laptops running Windows 10 can enable a “Make This PC Discoverable” feature to set it from public to private. On a Mac, go to “System Preferences” and then “Sharing” and make sure all checkboxes are unchecked.

In addition, you can enable a firewall to block unauthorized access into your computer, while you can communicate with the outside world via the Internet. On a PC, fire up the “Control Panel,” and then click “System and Security” to enable a firewall. On a Mac, launch “System Preferences,” and then go to “Security & Privacy” to turn it on.

Lastly, consider using a virtual private network (VPN) when browsing the Internet. While turning off sharing and enabling a firewall might prevent hackers from looking into your laptop, a VPN can block an Internet provider, including Comcast, AT&T, Verizon, and Time Warner, from knowing which websites you visit through your IP address altogether (although some VPN companies have been known to sell your browsing history). Services like Project Tor can mask that information by bouncing it around through a series of random servers—each with its very own IP address—from all around the world. So instead of sending web info from your laptop in Cicero, Illinois to a server in Chicago, a VPN would send that same info from Cicero to New York City to Amsterdam to Kuwait City to Manila to Los Angeles and then to Chicago.

There are also a few smaller things you can do to keep your Wi-Fi connection private, such as clearing your browsing data every few days or weeks, changing your passwords with a password manager like LastPass or Zoho Vault, and keeping your Wi-Fi turned off when you’re not using it. Luckily, most modern Internet browsers are really prompt about sending updates and patches to fix bugs and security breaches, but the best thing you can do is to stay vigilant and not join any open or sketchy Wi-Fi networks around you.

Save Up to 93 Percent on 8 Gaming Accessories and Enter to Win a Free Nintendo Switch Bundle

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Stackcommerce

The Nintendo Switch is one of the hottest video game consoles of the past few decades, with worldwide sales topping 55 million (that's more than the Super Nintendo and Nintendo 64, and it's only a few million behind the original NES). The problem with a console being so popular is that it's not always easy to spot one on store shelves. If you haven't had luck finding one in recent months, you can enter this contest to win your very own Nintendo Switch, along with a copy of Animal Crossing: New Horizons, a pair of Switch-compatible Logitech wireless headphones, and a $300 Nintendo gift card. Head here for more details.

While you wait to see who wins, check out these other great deals on gaming accessories.

1. Protective TPU Case for Nintendo Switch Console; $12 (20 percent off)

Geek Supply Co.

Once you get your Switch, you'll want to keep it in pristine condition. This protective case is made with shock-absorbent, flexible TPU for full protection against bumps, scratches, dust, fingerprints, and even the occasional toss in the heat of the moment.

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2. Two-in-One Docking Station for Nintendo Switch Joy-Cons; $16 (20 percent off)

Geek Supply Co.

The standard Switch will only charge one pair of Joy-Cons at a time, so if you've got a roommate always willing to hop in on a quick game of Mario Kart, you'll need this spare charging dock to make sure their controller is ready to go. The weighted base keeps the controllers stable so they’ll sit still to charge until you’re ready to play.

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3. Four-in-One Nintendo Switch Joy-Con Charging Dock; $18 (28 percent off)

Geek Supply Co.

Same as above, except this model charges two pairs of Joy-Cons at once. The easy-to-read red LED light lets you know it’s working, and the green lets you know it’s time to play.

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4. Ultra-Slim 500-Game Retro Gaming Device (Red); $14

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This portable HD gaming device packs over 500 classic arcade games like Pac-Man, Contra, Tetris, and plenty more. And with five hours of battery life, you'll get plenty of nostalgia before needing a recharge.

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5. Ninja Dragon Stealth 7 Wireless Silent Led Backlit Mouse (Black); $28 (30 percent off)

Onetify

The precision (or lack thereof) of a mouse can make all the difference when gaming on a PC. This wireless model comes with a 1600DPI true gaming sensor, ultra-precise scroll wheel, and high-precision positioning to avoid any lag while in a game.

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6. Gamecube Controller Adapter for WII/PC/Nintendo Switch; $10 (50 percent off)

Geek Supply Co.

A Nintendo Gamecube controller is still the best way to play any of the Super Smash Bros. titles, and with this adapter, you can use the old-school controllers on the Wii U or Nintendo Switch for an easy way to dive into multiplayer games. It also works for PC gaming.

Buy it: The Mental Floss Shop

7. Gforce 3 Professional 7200rpm USB 3.0/Esata External HDD (Black); $140 (11 percent off)

Fantom Drives

If you haven’t already, you’re going to want to back up all of your files to an external hard drive. This external HDD has 3TB of storage, meaning you likely won't run out of space even if you tried.

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8. Core 17-Inch Gaming Backpack With Molded Panel; $110 (15 percent off)

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This bag was designed specifically to hold gaming laptops and consoles, plus their accessories, in three large storage sections and four side pockets. It also features an external USB charge port for instant power.

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Prices subject to change.

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links. If you haven't received your voucher or have a question about your order, contact the Mental Floss shop here.



What the Color Codes on Toothpaste Tubes Really Mean

PeopleImages/iStock via Getty Images
PeopleImages/iStock via Getty Images

Packaging details—like the circles on chip bags and the symbols on cosmetics labels—can be mystifying to the average consumer. For years, a graphic has circulated the internet claiming to explain the hidden meaning behind the colored markings on the bottom of toothpaste tubes. While it's true that those color codes are there for a reason, the reason is much less interesting than the online rumors suggest.

According to Snopes, a widely-shared image on social media alleges that the colors on the seams of toothpaste tubes correlate to certain types of ingredients. The picture shows four different colored markings, with green meaning natural, blue indicating natural and medicine, red meaning natural and chemical composition, and black signifying pure chemical.

This "decoding" isn't based in truth, however. The markings on toothpaste packaging have nothing to do with the ingredients inside the tube—and even if they did, classifications like natural and chemical are too vague to mean anything. The real reason the colors are there is to aid the machinery responsible for putting the packaging together. The tiny colored rectangles are actually called eye marks or color marks, and they tell light beam sensors where a tube needs to be cut or folded. Once the toothpaste reaches the store, the markings no longer serve a purpose.

If you do want to know more about the ingredients in your toothpaste, it's not as hard as deciphering a mysterious code. "Oral care companies don’t mark their toothpastes with colored squares to try to trick consumers and hide ingredients from them," Colgate writes on its website. "If you want to know what kind of ingredients your toothpaste has, don’t look for a colored block at the end of the tube. Instead, take a look at the packaging for a comprehensive list of ingredients."

You can find the ingredients in your toothpaste listed on the outer box and/or the tube itself—and you don't need to know any secret codes to read them.

[h/t Snopes]