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Wednesday, 24 Jan 2018 | 5 min read

The risks of public WiFi and how to protect yourself

Photo of a hand holding a smartphone with 'Free WiFi' on the display

The explosion of free public WiFi could be considered a major convenience for staying connected on the go, but using public WiFi comes with risks you should be aware of. Whether you’re using at the airport, hotel, or cafe, be alert to the potential dangers and take measures to reduce the risk of malicious attacks and data theft.

What’s public WiFi?

WiFi is a technology enabling computers and other devices to connect to the internet wirelessly. The wireless adapter or router is configured to create a hotspot, and anyone within physical range can access it. At home and work your WiFi is usually a closed network, which means you need a password to use it. In public places however, WiFi can be completely unsecured.

Public WiFi can be found in high-traffic public places like airports, cafes, libraries, parks, shopping centres, hotels, and restaurants. These places might offer you WiFi – wireless internet access – for free, and often without the need for login credentials. Since public WiFi is so common these days, it’s easy to be lulled into a false sense of security about how safe these networks are.

While it might seem safe to check email, social media, and the bank balance as you wait for your flight, public WiFi presents real dangers.

What are the risks of public WiFi?

Data theft, malware attacks, and malicious hotspots – these are some of the biggest risks of using public WiFi. Typically public WiFi doesn’t require you to enter a username and password to use the network. Another potential vulnerability of free public WiFi networks is lack of encryption, which heightens the risk of sensitive data being stolen.

Access to your information

Since public WiFi usually requires no authentication, it offers a tempting avenue for would-be hackers to obtain access to unsecured devices using the network. Malicious attacks through the network can result in your data being stolen, whether it’s client documents you’ve been working on, your email login details, or your credit card information.

One of the ways information can be stolen is through a party-in-the-middle attack or a packet-sniffing attack. The hacker intercepts your connection when your device is sending information to the WiFi router. As you load your email, bank account login, or social media, the hacker continues to relay the information on to the router, so you’re unaware anything unusual is happening. Vulnerabilities in the router setup or in your device and apps could allow hackers to gain access to any data transmitted between your phone or computer and the WiFi router. This could include log-in details for your work or business intranet or database.

Malware distribution

WiFi can also expose you to the risk of malware. If you have enabled file-sharing across networks, the hacker can gain access to your public folders when you connect to the public WiFi. The hacker can then take the opportunity to install malware on your device. The malware that’s installed without your knowledge could give hackers access to everything on your devices, such as files, photos, and microphone and webcam (for eavesdropping).

Compromised devices on the network

When you connect to public WiFi, you might be unknowingly linking to other compromised devices using the same WiFi network. Compromised devices could have malware installed on them, which means they can be used to relay information back to hackers. If you have home or work network settings enabled instead of the public network settings, you could be allowing these compromised devices to view and access your shared folders.

Malicious hotspots

Anyone can set up a WiFi network and make it look like a legitimate network by using an official-sounding network name. For example, you might be staying at a Novotel when you connect to a WiFi network called Novotel. While the name suggests it’s affiliated with your hotel, it’s not the hotel’s free WiFi but a malicious hotspot set up with the intent of capturing your sensitive data. As you log into your email, social media, banking, and company sites, your private information is being captured by the hotspot’s real owner.

Strategies for staying safe on WiFi

Assume no public WiFi network is completely secure. If you need to use public WiFi from time to time, take extra precautions with these tips.

Basic settings

In addition to using an anti-virus program and turning on your firewall and automatic patches to stay secure, use these basic settings to safeguard your devices.

  • Auto-connect – Check to make sure the auto-connect setting on your device is switched off. By switching auto-connect off, your device won’t automatically connect to any WiFi network unless you manually choose the specific connection and click to connect.

  • Sharing – Turn off sharing and switch to public network settings so you’re not sharing folders with any other devices on the network.

  • HTTPS – Use a HTTPS extension in your browser, as this means you’ll be able to access safer sites rather than HTTP addresses that have lower levels of protection

Be selective

Be selective about how you use public WiFi. Don’t use it to access bank accounts, email, or other personal, sensitive sites. Unless you’re using a VPN, assume the data you’re sending through the WiFi network is visible to others. Be aware if you choose to connect to a public WiFi, the data on your device could be accessed by hackers using malware and other techniques.

Use a VPN

If you need to use WiFi, a virtual private network is highly recommended. The VPN will encrypt all your data, making it extremely challenging for hackers to decrypt your data even if they successfully attack the network. An alternative is to make sure you have generous amount of mobile data and use your personal mobile connection for sensitive sites.

Keep WiFi off when not in use

If you want to be extra careful, keep your computer in airplane mode when you’re not using WiFi. Switching to airplane mode gives you an extra layer of security. It means your computer won’t be connecting to any WiFi connections or broadcasting to find any hidden networks like a hidden home network.

Despite the freedom and convenience public WiFi networks provide, they pose security risks for anyone using them. Unless you use a VPN, you should assume attacks and data theft are real possibilities if you choose to use a public WiFi network. By taking a few safety measures, you can reduce or eliminate the risks associated with public WiFi.

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Tags:Security and PrivacyVPNInternet

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