People use public Wi-Fi all the time – at the coffee shop, in a hotel lobby, or while waiting at the airport. However, there are many security dangers that lurk on public Wi-Fi networks. Data, sent through public Wi-Fi networks can be easily intercepted by cyber-criminals. If you use public Wi-Fi, your personal data could be at risk.
What are the risks
A common danger is fake Wi-FI networks. They have similar-sounding names to legitimate public Wi-Fi networks but are created to trick and confuse internet users. Once you connect to this kind of Wi-Fi network, everything you do online is monitored by cyber-criminals. They can scan your activity for banking and social media log-in information.
Public Wi-Fi connections can also be used to distribute various types of malware. Cyber-criminals can easily spread viruses and other malicious software onto your computer, smartphone or tablet. This can cause very serious damage to your device and privacy.
Why is it unsafe?
Many public Wi-Fi networks use no password or encryption of any sort. In that case, attackers can see all the traffic on the network and it does not even require any special hacking skills. There is plenty of software floating around that enables spying on unsecured networks with just a few mouse clicks.
People assume that public Wi-Fi that uses WPA2-PSK (aka the standard data flow encryption in most modern routers) is safe. That would be true if we’d be talking about our home network, where we share a password with people we trust.
In a public place like a cafe, anyone that connects before you do can spy on your activity. It is called “spying on your handshake” with the network. In other words, an attack can see the communication that occurs between your device and an access point when you first connect to the hotspot. The attacker can then steal your encryption key and see all of your traffic.
Man-in-the-middle-attacks: this is when an attacker sits between your device and the internet connection. Many times this kind of attacker will set-up a fake Wi-Fi hotspot that looks like a legit one. If you connect to it, all of your traffic will go through the attackers’ computer and he will be able to see whatever you are doing.
How to stay safe on a public Wi-Fi network
1. Avoid accessing sensitive data.
Reading the news or checking your social media accounts is fine, but you should think twice before checking your bank account on a public network. Any website like an online store or bank where you enter a password or put in credit card details is a risk. These websites try to encrypt your data, but it is not guaranteed protection. Try to only access these websites at home or on a 100% trusted network. You can also use a VPN service or a mobile hotspot, but we’ll cover that a bit later.
2. Connect to networks that you trust.
Anyone with a router can set set-up a Wi-Fi network. Look for Wi-Fi names that you really recognize in the location you are. E.g. if you are in the Los Angeles airport then “LAX Int. airport Wi-Fi” is likely safer than “FreeWifi123”.
3. Prefer password protected networks.
A classic and the most common example is a coffee shop with a password written on the wall. These are generally more secure than a true open network. Of course, you should still be cautious, as you are sharing the network with others in that space.
4. Uncheck “Connect automatically”
You can uncheck the “Connect automatically” feature in your Wi-Fi settings. This will ensure that you use the networks you intend to and won’t get connected automatically to an unsecured Wi-Fi network. You should prefer connecting to a network that is protected with a password.
5. Turn on firewall at all times
When on any network (even safe at home), you should make sure that your firewall is on. If you are using Windows, type in “Windows security” in your search box, open the app and select “Firewall & Network protection”. The message you are looking for should say “Firewall is on”.
If you need to transfer sensitive data while on a public Wi-Fi network, consider other options. You can use your phone as a mobile hotspot. In that way, you control the network and who is on it. Another good option is to use a Virtual Private Network (VPN) service. It encrypts all the data you send over Wi-Fi, hiding your data from anyone who is listening on the same Wi-Fi network as you. One of the cons is that the best VPN services are paid, but it is worth it to pay a few bucks per month to have complete privacy on a public Wi-Fi or at home.