The Pitfalls of Public Wi-Fi Security
Want to use a free Wi-Fi hotspot? Be ready to pay with your personal data.
In our connected world, using free public Wi-Fi has become a daily routine for some people. But what seems a secure and reliable connection isn’t always that. Public Wi-Fi hotspots are easy targets for hackers and cybercriminals.
Many of us have found ourselves in a situation where public Wi-Fi is the only option of getting online immediately. So, if you're guilty of hopping on to the nearest wifi hotspot, it’s good to understand what the unsecured Wi-Fi risks are to help prevent you from becoming a victim of an attack.
In this post, you’ll learn:
- What makes public Wi-Fi dangerous?
- What can happen to you when using public Wi-Fi?
- The simple mechanics behind data sniffing
- How to stay safe on public Wi-Fi
As the world slowly recovers from COVID-19, many of us are starting to go out again, connecting to free Wi-Fi in local coffee shops or at the hospital, without giving it a second thought. Because, well, how different can public Wi-Fi be from the one you have at home. Well, in terms of security, very different.
What makes public Wi-Fi dangerous?
We bet your home wireless network is at least protected by a password. Public Wi-Fi, on the other hand, is not necessarily secured at all. And even if it is, getting the key is easy. Which means literally anyone can get access to the hotspot.
An unsecured public Wi-Fi network is a honeycomb for hackers. Here’s what makes it easy to attack:
- Low or no security
- Easy entry
- Improper Wi-Fi router configuration
- Outdated router software
- Lots of unaware users
By 2023, there will be nearly 628 million public Wi-Fi hotspots. And as their number grows, so do the potential dangers. Let’s look at what you risk by connecting to a free public Wi-Fi network.
What can happen to you when using public Wi-Fi?
Here are some true to life examples that can happen to anyone who connects to public Wi-Fi.
Just imagine yourself sitting in a clinic waiting for a doctor’s appointment. Your smartphone finds the unsecured wireless network Hospital_26 and automatically connects to it. Nothing’s suspicious so far, right? You wait a little longer than you thought to see the doctor, so you decide to open an online shopping app and order a few things.
You spend less than 20 minutes finding your new favorite pair of trainers but, as a result, will waste months dealing with the consequences. Because soon you’ll find out about several transactions from your credit card account you didn’t make.
This is what financial fraud looks like. Hospital_26 wasn’t provided by your clinic, it was the work of scammers, stealing your personal information to take advantage of it. How did that happen? In this case, you kindly let them do it. By automatically connecting to the unknown public Wi-Fi and shopping online, you exposed your credit card information.
☝️ Ask yourself: Do you really need to buy that *right now*?
Connecting to public Wi-Fi at a local coffee shop while ordering a drink is a habit for many of us. Now think about it another way.
You order a coffee and get online to answer corporate emails. Because sometimes your job just can’t wait. What you don’t know is that the messages you send to your boss may be secretly intercepted. And all the sensitive data you share is exposed, which can result in a dreadful data breach.
Unfortunately, that’s what happens when hackers put themselves between you and the server. All the information you send from your phone or laptop connected to the public Wi-Fi is visible to him. It’s called the Man-in-the-Middle attack, and it’s more common than you think.
☝️ Ask yourself: Can that email wait 15 minutes?
Today, the temptation to scroll through the latest news in a public place is higher than ever.
Fear of missing out, aka FOMO, will eat you alive if you don’t. So you probably won’t mind connecting to a free Wi-Fi hotspot to browse the latest news. After all, there’s no sensitive data involved, so what’s the harm?
Well, even browsing the web can get you in trouble because using public Wi-Fi makes you an easy target for browser hijackers and other malware. You may be just opening a news website when an innocent-looking pop-up ad appears on the screen. What you don’t know is that by accidentally clicking on it, you welcome dangerous software right into your phone or laptop.
☝️ Ask yourself: What’s scarier FOMO, or being hacked?
The simple mechanics behind Wi-Fi sniffing
Surprisingly enough, you don’t always have to be a master codebreaker to intercept personal data on public Wi-Fi. Just having the right gear and being a good psychologist is enough. Because the main part of getting someone’s sensitive data is making them do what you want.
Take connecting to a fake wireless network, for instance. Hackers deliberately put out the so-called “rogue” access points next to the official ones. Since the fake hotspot always mimics the name of the secured one, it’s easy to confuse them.
Sure, smooth criminals need a few applications and special tools for actual sniffing but the secret ingredient to every hackers’ success is the unaware user. So let’s learn how to not give cybercriminals any chances.
How to stay safe on public Wi-Fi
Here’s what you need to do if you want to minimize public Wi-Fi security risks:
- Use a VPN
- Choose the network wisely
- Never connect to free Wi-Fi automatically
- Turn off Bluetooth and file-sharing
- Don’t open or send sensitive data
- Never install anything on public Wi-Fi
- Use an antivirus
- Enable firewall
- Only visit safe websites
Use a VPN
There’s no other option for staying 100% protected on a public Wi-Fi than using a Virtual Private Network. VPN hides your IP address and encrypts all the information you send online. This means that personal data can’t be intercepted since the hacker won’t see it. VPN turns your data into a secret code that can only be read by the party you send it to.
Imagine a VPN as an elevator that transports your private information directly to the floor you ask, without making any unnecessary stops on its way.
Choose a network wisely
Always pay attention to what kind of public network you are connecting to. Remember the following tips:
- Only connect to secured public Wi-Fi
- Use the official, well-known hotspots
- Choose paid Wi-Fi over the free one
- Double-check the name of a Wi-Fi hotspot you’re about to connect to
- Read the user agreement and terms of service carefully before accessing public Wi-Fi
- Never connect to free Wi-Fi automatically
We bet you don’t want your smartphone to get hacked, so never walk around with your Wi-Fi switched on. Most importantly, disable the automatic connection settings to protect it from accessing random unsecured hotspots. You already know those are dangerous, don’t you?
Turn off Bluetooth and file-sharing
To protect your personal information, disable Bluetooth and all the other file-sharing options. Because if you don’t, the minute you connect to public Wi-Fi, you risk welcoming hackers into your public folders. You also risk having viruses and malware secretly installed on your device.
Don’t access or send your sensitive data
You don’t want your sensitive data to get intercepted, so make sure you don’t expose any. Forget about online banking, shopping, and working remotely when connecting to public Wi-Fi. Don’t use any application that may contain sensitive data. The sad truth is many applications have security flaws, so anything you do within them may be visible to hackers.
Never install anything on public Wi-Fi
If you really need to use public Wi-Fi, try not to download anything. And by anything, we mean not only the suspicious app that appears in a shiny pop-up ad, but also the well-known applications, extensions, and updates to your existing apps. There’s always a chance you’ll download a piece of malware along with them.
Use an antivirus
Unfortunately, an antivirus program won’t save your personal data from interception but it can protect your device from various malware. This includes the malicious programs hackers secretly send to your phone or laptop on public Wi-Fi.
Turn on firewall
Enabling the firewall can save your laptop from suspicious data packets. Put simply, a firewall analyzes the data traffic and protects your device from unauthorized access. So whenever you connect to public Wi-Fi, don’t forget to turn the protection on.
Protect your web browsing
Pay attention to the addresses of the websites you visit on public Wi-Fi. The “HTTPS” at the beginning of the address states that this website has a secure socket layer (SSL). This internet security protocol ensures a safe connection.
* * *
We didn’t mean to scare you, and of course not every public Wi-Fi service leads to getting hacked. But it’s good to know the dangers and be prepared.
If using public Wi-Fi can’t be avoided, try a VPN from Clario. It’ll keep your personal data securely in place so you can carry on browsing without feeling exposed to risks.
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