Public WiFi spots provide us with the convenience of having internet access everywhere we go. There is free WiFi in our favorite coffee shops, hotels, airport, libraries – you name it.
But is public WiFi safe?
This is a question that should worry more people as the simple answer to this question is no. Public WiFi is the type of internet connection that puts your private data at risk the most.
The data sent through public WiFi can be easily intercepted by hackers or mal-intended third parties which means there is a high chance for someone to steal your private information, identity and even your money.
In this post, we’ll see what are the public WiFi security risks and how you can prevent someone from snooping through your personal information.
Public WiFi security risks
Connecting to WiFi in public places comes with some risks and you should be aware of them before you go check your email again from your favorite coffee shop. So let’s see why public WiFi is not safe.
What do you know about the network?
When you connect to a public WiFi, you have no idea about who is managing the network and who has access to it. Not to mention, there are high chances that a public WiFi spot is fake even though it may seem like coming from a legitimate place (we’ll go over this in more details below).
Collecting private data
The data you send through a public WiFi network can be tracked and collected. This data includes information such as email content, passwords, and browsing history. From there, the WiFi provider can sell the information to third parties, usually for marketing purposes, or a hacker can hack into the network and steal the information so he gets access to your accounts and even your credit card details.
You should be extra careful when you are asked to agree to certain terms and conditions when you’re connecting to a public WiFi.
Sometimes, there is little print where you are asked to share more than necessary. If you don’t pay attention to the agreement, you might find yourself oversharing more private information than you might think.
Public WiFi attacks
We’ve seen what the public WiFi security risks are, now let’s take a look over the most common types of public WiFi attacks as hackers have different techniques for stealing their victims’ private information.
Fake (rogue) WiFi spots
Anyone is able to set up a WiFi spot and give it whatever name they want. This represents a great opportunity for hackers to lure people into connecting to a malicious network.
Oftentimes, hackers set up their own WiFi spot by using a common name, usually the name of a coffee shop or airport that’s nearby. Users who see the WiFi network will connect to it thinking the connection is legitimate. Needless to say, the moment you connect to the fake WiFi, the hacker gets access to the data you send and receive over the internet and can get hold of your private information such as your accounts credentials and credit card information.
The favorite place for hackers to use this technique is in airports because these places are crowded with people that come and go. Not only this gives hackers a great number of targets but, because everyone is on the move, it makes it hard for the attacks to be traced back to the real cyber criminal.
Moreover, you also put yourself at risk when you set up your devices to automatically connect to certain public WiFi spots. If someone set up a fake WiFi having the same name as the network your device connects to automatically, you’ll find yourself joining a malicious network without even realizing.
Man in the middle (MITM) attacks
This common type of public WiFi attack refers to an attacker that manages to compromise a WiFi spot in a way that he gets access to the network connection. The attacker places himself between the WiFi spot and the victim so he’s able to intercept and modify all the data that’s being transferred. What you thought it was private, is not anymore.
If the data transferred between the WiFi hotspot and the devices connected to that network is unencrypted and the network is unprotected (which happens with most public WiFi networks), an attacker is able to intercept and read the data, putting all users’ private information at risk.
Most WiFi routers have the encryption turned off by default. Depending on who set up the WiFi spot, the network may or may not be encrypted. If a network is encrypted, it means that if someone intercepts the data, he also needs the key to deciphering the code. When the network is unencrypted however, whoever connects to the public WiFi spot is at the risk of having their private data stolen.
A common way for hackers to steal users’ private information through public WiFi is to exploit the devices’ software vulnerabilities (such as an outdated operating system). They can write a code targeting a specific vulnerability and use it to infect your device with malware. There are types of malware that hackers can use to log all the keystrokes you hit on your keyboard so they can teal your accounts credentials and bank account information.
How to use public WiFi safely?
Know what you’re getting yourself into
When you connect to a public WiFi, keep in mind the risks we went over above. It is important to be aware of the risks at all times because it will make you proceed with more caution.
Don’t think your device is not at risk
Just because you don’t use a laptop to connect to a public WiFi spot but a mobile phone or tablet, this doesn’t butty the risks of public WiFi. All devices can be hacked by a mal-intended cybercriminal.
Never assume that a public wifi spot is secure, no matter where the signal is coming from. As you’ve seen above, one of the strategies hackers use to intercept people’s data is by setting up fake wifi spots that seem like coming from a well-known place. You should especially avoid public WiFi that you don’t know and seem suspicious.
One public WiFi security best practice is to try and make sure the WiFi spot is legitimate. You can do so by talking to an employee from the coffee shop or hotel you’re at. Employees can give you information about the WiFi name and IP address so you can check to see if it is the real connection. I know that some people will look at you like you’re some kind of tin foil cap lunatic as many people are not aware of the risks that come with using public WiFi, but a strange look is a small price to pay for using a public WiFi securely and protecting your private data.
Only access HTTPS sites
Stay away from accessing HTTP sites as they lack any security layer. One best practice is to use a Chrome or Firefox extension known as HTTPS Everywhere which will force all the websites you access to use an HTTPS connection. Still, this technique is not bulletproof as a hacker can alter the connection and disguise an HTTP site as being HTTPS.
Avoid connecting to your accounts
One of the highest risks to have your private information stolen is when you log in to accounts such as social media profiles, banking services or other platforms that use private or credit card information. It’s best to avoid transferring money or online shopping altogether. If you’re really in need to access your bank account, it’s more secure to do it through your mobile network connection rather than through a public WiFi.
Use a VPN for public WiFi
Without a VPN, all the data transferred between your device and the internet can be easily intercepted by hackers and, once they manage to get hold of your connection, they can read all the information that’s being sent as the data is not encrypted in any way.
How will a VPN change this?
Well, a VPN creates a secure tunnel for the information to travel through, meaning that all the data that’s being exchanged between your devices and the internet is encrypted. If hackers manage to intercept your connection, they won’t be able to read the information. Hence, your personal information and your money are secure even on public WiFi.
With a VPN you can even online shop, connect to Facebook, and transfer money without risking someone stealing your personal information, accounts credentials or backing information. Your identity and money will be safe. This is what makes a VPN perfect for public WiFi security.
As you’ve seen in this post, you subject yourself to multiple risks when using a public WiFi network. Fortunately, you can secure public WiFi networks by taking care of the aspects we covered above.
Let’s recap what you should keep in mind when using a public WiFi so you do it safely:
- Public WiFi spots are not secure and are often unencrypted
- It’s easy for hackers to hack into a public WiFi network and steal users’ private information with the minimum amount of knowledge
- There are more ways in which an attacker can get access to your private information through public WiFi networks
- You should never blindly trust that a public WiFi network is secure, no matter where the signal is coming from
- Using a VPN for public WiFi is the most efficient way to keep your sensitive data and money secure
- Will you be more cautious about public WiFi security risks from now on? You may also be interested in how to secure your WiFi network at home.