Although our personal devices come in handy, sometimes, we need to use public computers for urgent tasks. We usually go to the library for convenient access, but how safe are public computers?
You might leave your email account or social media profile logged in, allowing the person next in line full access to your personal information.
So, it’s important to keep your data safe while using public computers; much of your security relies on yourself. Not knowing the proper steps could keep your online privacy at risk.
We scoured the web for reliable sources on how public computers are kept safe or if libraries implement some security measures.
We also gathered the best tips and expert insights on how to use public computers safely and the most common mistakes people make when using a public computer that you should avoid at all costs.
What is a public access computer, and how safe is it?
Public access computers are devices available for everyone to use, and they’re frequently accessible in libraries.
You can download files, print documents, or connect to the library WiFi. However, are these library computers safe?
Although public computers allow us to surf the web, do school work, and complete other tasks for free, they’re not always safe for use.
You risk your personal information both online and offline, especially since these computers likely come with only minimal security measures.
You might not have prior knowledge about a public computer’s age, network security, and whether or not it logs your digital footprint. Because it’s open for use, hackers can easily install malicious software that can extract sensitive information like your passwords.
Where are public computers available?
Aside from libraries, where else can you go to use a computer and print documents?
There may be more public access computers near you if you know where to look. Here are some of the most common places you can find public computers:
1. Community centers
Depending on your city, community centers usually house computer labs and WiFi areas for public use. This allows those without access to the internet at home to use computers for free for employment, schoolwork, and other necessary work.
This could also mean free internet access for travelers, but it’s important to call ahead to ensure that you’ve read guest policies, usage limits, and hours allotted for users.
If you forget your personal computer, your office likely has one you can borrow. Spare laptops or desktops are not uncommon, especially if you have shared spaces for meetings, brainstorming sessions, and other tasks.
Although you likely have a secure connection to rely on, you can’t always know who uses the computer, what it contains, or what data it collects.
It’s not always common, but hotels offer business lodging with computers, printers, and even fax machines. This is on top of complimentary WiFi access that you can access as a guest.
What are the risks of using public computers?
The concept of public computers carries good intentions, especially since they offer those who need urgent access to the internet free usage.
It’s most helpful for many who don’t have internet access due to the lack of devices or funds for a connection.
Either way, public use comes with plenty of risks, and here are some we’ve identified:
1. People can access your online accounts
If you choose to log in to your online accounts using a public computer, keep in mind that it can save your digital footprint—leaving your passwords, data, and other information accessible to hackers.
They can extract information from your online accounts, including credit cards, bank accounts, and other sensitive information for identity theft.
All these are just the tip of the iceberg, though. The worst possible scenario is accidentally leaving your account logged in, leaving everything out in the open.
You mustn’t think this isn’t possible—many fall victim to this!
2. Your financial data become vulnerable
Apart from your online accounts, your financial data becomes vulnerable the moment you choose to transact on a public computer.
Making purchases and paying bills may seem harmless, but autosave features can leave your credit card information on the browser for future use.
You may just wake up one day and find that someone has used your credit card for a shopping spree, leaving you with a hefty bill and a heavily compromised credit card.
3. There could be viruses and malware
All devices are vulnerable to viruses and malware. Whether a hard drive, laptop, mobile phone, USB, or memory card, when you connect it to an infected computer, the malware can multiply and affect your own.
You risk losing your saved data and device, which can affect other devices you will connect to later. Unfortunately, not every device can detect viruses early. You may just wake up to find everything completely blank and unusable.
For public computers, viruses are almost always a given. Because of the number of users daily, one may accidentally download malware into the device.
4. People may look over your shoulder
Since public computers are located in public spaces, strangers can look over your shoulder and see your activities. It’s important to be aware of your surroundings when using a shared computer, as you never truly know who’s watching your moves.
If you need to log in to an account, look around before typing your password in—and do it as quickly as possible!
Safety tips to remember when using public computers
Now that we’ve discussed the risks of using public computers, we must focus on safety tips.
Here’s what we’ve gathered from our extensive research—don’t miss out on the expert insight and the most common mistake people make when using public computers:
Don’t save any passwords
Here’s what you should never do on a public computer: save your passwords.
Unfortunately, almost everyone forgets that browsers can store passwords. This is a common mistake people overlook when using public computers, as they save passwords with the intention of clearing the browser history later on—only to forget to do so after use.
Password saving is extremely dangerous, especially when it comes to shared devices. Before you log in, turn off the “save password” option, which is usually turned on by default. You can also use the Incognito mode to protect your digital footprint better.
Clear your browsing history
Ashleigh Duggan, the owner of Air Experiences, recommends deleting your browsing history as soon as possible.
“Keeping any personal data on a public computer could lead to identity theft, hackers stealing your money, or finding confidential information about you,” Duggan said.
“So going into the history tab and deleting everything you have searched or used online is extremely important to keep safe.”
“You should also be aware of what websites you are using and what information you share on public wifi, as hackers can intercept this information and use it against you,” she added.
Once you’ve finished your tasks, clear your browsing history. Delete your cookers, form data, saved files, and browsing history, and use Incognito Mode. However, you should still be wary of the websites you visit and the information you enter.
Never use your credit card and banking details
If you can, avoid transactions with banks or online shopping using public computers or when you connect to a public network.
It’s better to rely on your mobile devices for sensitive transactions, as you risk having your financial details from being recorded in a public computer.
Public computers are reliable devices we can use for free. They also provide internet access to those who need them the most for schoolwork or employment opportunities. In general, they’re a necessary form of public service.
Unfortunately, they’re not always safe. Hackers exist both online and offline, with the sole goal of stealing information with malicious intent. Public computers are extra vulnerable to their tactics, so it’s important to remember to always proceed with caution.