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Wednesday 24 Jan 2018 | 3 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

What’s public Wi-Fi?

Whether you’re scrolling TikTok at a café abroad or sending a last-minute email before boarding a flight, chances are you’ve probably connected to some form of public wi-fi. This is a network without the usual security measures of a home or office network, like password protections.  

When we first wrote this article five years ago, the risk of malicious actors using a public network like this was a lot higher. Hackers could steal personal information or passwords without users being any the wiser, falling victim to identity theft.  

Is public Wi-Fi still dangerous? 

A lot of progress has been made in the past few years to protect all our data. This is namely because of the proliferation of the Hypertext transfer protocol secure (HTTPS). This basically means your connection to that website is encrypted, stopping malicious actors lurking on a public Wi-Fi network from gaining access to any activity you’re doing on that site. 

For example, you could go to and log in. Because Facebook uses HTTPS, while someone might be able to see you’re on Facebook, they won’t be able to see your login information or even what you’re doing when you go to Facebook (joining all the cat groups in your local area, duh). 

That said, hackers be hacking and it’s always better to be safe than sorry. For instance, there are still plenty of legitimate websites that don’t use HTTPS (looking at you, BOM). Cyber criminals are endlessly creative in looking for new ways to get their grubby hands on your data, such as through phishing emails or ransomware attacks.  

How to protect yourself on public Wi-Fi 

In light of these realities, adopting a proactive approach to cyber security is paramount. By implementing the following strategies, users can mitigate the inherent risks associated with public Wi-Fi: 

Check your settings 

Aside from keeping your devices updated (And yes, you need to do this. In fact, go check for a software update right now. We’ll wait.), there are a few settings you can check to make sure you’re prepared to connect to a public Wi-Fi network. 

  • Auto-connect: Turn the auto-connect setting on your device off. Your device won’t automatically connect to any Wi-Fi network, unless you manually select one to connect to. 

  • Sharing: Turn off file-sharing and switch to the public network option in your device’s network settings. This ensures you’re not sharing data with any other devices on the network. 

  • Turn Wi-Fi off when not in use. Not only will this help save battery life, but is a safe way to make sure you won’t accidentally connect to any network you don’t want to! 

Be suspicious 

In this case, you do NOT want to give any public network the benefit of the doubt. Let’s say you’re at a hotel or restaurant: before connecting to a network that's called “NameofVenue_Wifi”, check with the staff to make sure that’s their actual provided Wi-Fi network. Also check you aren’t falling prey to misleading numbers and letters (e.g. “Marr1ot Wi-Fi” or "N0votel”).  

Even then, make sure you also follow the next tip. 

Use a VPN 

If you need to use Wi-Fi, a virtual private network is highly recommended. The VPN will encrypt all your data, making it harder for hackers to access your data even if they successfully attack the network. Even then, prioritise HTTPS websites whenever possible, to ensure secure communication between your device and the website's server. 

Just don’t do it 

Now I know we just said that a lot has changed and public Wi-Fi isn’t as scary as it used to be, but another thing has changed in the last 5 years. Access to mobile data!  

Most providers offer generous amounts of data now, even in starting plans. For the most sensitive, high-risk transactions, just turn on your mobile hotspot and use the 4G or 5G mobile network instead! For things like online banking or sharing personal information, it might be worth the extra peace of mind. 

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While public Wi-Fi networks can be very convenient when on-the-go, don’t forget to keep your devices and data protected! As one criminal-pretending-to-be-a-magical-professor once said: “Constant vigilance!”. 

Tags:Security and PrivacyVPNInternet

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