Public Wi-Fi is used all the time – at the coffee shop, in a hotel lobby, or in the airport waiting room. But there are many security dangers associated with public Wi-Fi networks that can put your personal data at risk. Let’s discuss the most significant risks to be aware of.
What are the risks?
Your privacy is at risk because many public Wi-Fi networks use no password or encryption of any sort. Attackers can see all the traffic on the network using software that doesn’t even require any special hacking skills.
Also, cyber-criminals can use public Wi-Fi connections to distribute viruses and other malicious software onto your computer, smartphone or tablet, causing very serious damage to your device.
Why is it unsafe?
One common danger is that you’ll log into a fake Wi-FI network with a name that sounds similar to those of legitimate public Wi-Fi networks. This is sometimes called a “man-in-the-middle” attack. Once you connect to this kind of Wi-Fi network, everything you do online goes through the attacker’s computer, allowing them to monitor all your activity, such as your banking and social media login information.
Public Wi-Fi uses WPA2-PSK (the standard data flow encryption in most modern routers), which is not safe in this environment. This type of encryption is only safe on your home network, where you share a password with people you trust.
Using Wi-Fi in a public place allows anyone who has connected before you to spy on your activity. In what’s called a “spying-on-your-handshake” attack, a hacker can see the communication that occurs between your device and an access point when you first connect to the hotspot, giving them access to your encryption key and the ability to see all of your traffic.
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 okay on a public Wi-Fi, but think twice before checking your bank account on a public network. Any website such as an online store or bank where you enter a password or put in credit card details is at risk. Although these websites try to encrypt your data, it is not guaranteed protection. It’s best to only access these websites at home or on a 100% trusted network. You can also use a VPN service or a mobile hotspot.
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. For example, if you are in the Los Angeles airport, then “LAX Int. airport Wi-Fi” is likely safer than “FreeWifi123”.
3. Use password protected networks.
Some coffee houses display their Wi-Fi passwords on the wall, or print them on customer receipts. Cartoonists and comedians joke about the practice. Still, these arrangements 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”
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. It is best to use a network that is protected with a password.
5. Turn on firewall at all times
When on any network (even when safe at home), 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 should say “Firewall is on.”
If you need to transfer sensitive data while on a public Wi-Fi network, consider other options. For example, 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, which encrypts all the data you send over Wi-Fi, masking your data from anyone who is listening on the same Wi-Fi network as you. The best VPN services are paid, but it’s worth it to pay a little per month to have complete privacy on a public Wi-Fi or at home.