These days, almost every other person you meet is a digital nomad. Whether you’re a business owner, manager, or junior employee, the last couple of years have forced everyone to adapt to a much more dynamic lifestyle and, as a result, many people are spending increasingly more of their time on public Wi-Fi networks.
But what do we know about those networks, their operators, and their level of security? Can we trust them when sending and receiving sensitive business information? The short answer is absolutely not.
- Public Wi-Fi networks require no authentication to establish a network connection, this means that anyone can connect to the network.
- The network admin can see which devices are connected at any given moment, but even worse, with a few simple software tools, even an amateur can hack into the network, make their way into the admin panel and, ultimately, gain access to personal private information being sent through the network.
- Having a virtual private network (VPN) installed and operated on your device while using public Wi-Fi lowers your chances significantly of getting hit with all those attacks that were listed.
How Does Public Wi-Fi Work?
Public Wi-Fi networks require no authentication to establish a network connection. This means that anyone can connect to the network. With or without an entry password, more often than not, these networks are anything but secure.
Try asking the bartender at your local cafe about the level of encryption of their public Wi-Fi network. It’ll be a huge surprise if they have any clue what you’re talking about.
Airports and public transport networks sometimes have more protections in place, but they also tend to be more targeted for attacks, depending on the location. The resulting outcome is that your important data is left exposed and vulnerable to cyber threats.
The network admin can see which devices are connected at any given moment, but even worse, with a few simple software tools, even an amateur can hack into the network, make their way into the admin panel and, ultimately, gain access to personal private information being sent through the network.
If you’re just reading the news, you might get away with it, but any data you send and receive while you’re logged into public Wi-Fi, including emails, text messages, documents, photos, and even credentials to the websites you visit, immediately become vulnerable.
What Are the Dangers of Using Public Wi-Fi?
- Malware distribution
- Man-in-the-middle attack
Software-as-a-service (SaaS) companies and e-commerce websites tend to be the main targets for an attack, but also customers who use those services or make transactions online, especially if they are using public Wi-Fi.
Unencrypted Wi-Fi connections are often exploited to distribute malware. All the hacker needs is for you to allow network file sharing to plant infected software on your device. Alternatively, they might show you a fake link to some software update and the moment you click it, the malware installs on your device.
In a man-in-the-middle (MITM) attack, the intruder uses malicious hub spots to intercept the connection between the users and the network and then eavesdrop or impersonate them. This could result in either one of four unpleasant scenarios:
- A sniffing and spoofing attack where the attacker follows the keystrokes of the victim’s keyboard or touchscreen to reveal access credentials for different websites and platforms they use.
- Session hijacking is when the attacker uses their newly gained privileges to take over the session and perform actions on your behalf. In some cases, the attacker gains complete control over the victim’s device remotely.
- Financial fraud occurs if the device happens to be logged into a financial app during the attack, meaning any sensitive information on it can be exploited to commit financial fraud and illegal money transfers.
- Identity theft occurs when an attacker assumes the victim’s personally identifiable information like their name, email, social media account, or credit card number to either commit an untraceable crime or, if the attack is personal, to harm the victim’s business, relationships, or reputation.
To give you an example of possible outcomes, a businesswoman who runs an e-commerce fashion brand and spends a significant portion of her time traveling and working on public Wi-Fi networks recently had her Instagram account hacked. The attacker hid all of her posts and replaced her bio with the notice: This account is suspended until the user pays the ransom.
She didn’t want to lose her 45,000 followers or 700-plus beautiful images that she worked so hard for, and that was exactly what the attackers were counting on. Thankfully, she managed to get her account restored by Instagram, but it could have gone the other way, and you can only imagine how nerve-wracking that must have been.
How to Stay Protected When Using Public Wi-Fi?
- Use a Virtual Private Network
- Check Your Device Settings
You should avoid making any transactions with your credit card or financial apps while using public Wi-Fi, but what else can you do to stay protected on public Wi-Fi?
Use a Virtual Private Network
Having a virtual private network (VPN) installed and operated on your device while using public Wi-Fi lowers your chances significantly of getting hit with all those attacks that were listed. By encrypting your unique internet protocol (IP) address and giving you a fake one instead, you would become invisible to other devices on the network.
When choosing a VPN provider, here are some features to look out for:
- Ability to run the VPN on multiple devices simultaneously as there’s no point protecting your laptop if all the information is left unguarded on your phone
- A variety of server locations to choose from, preferably near to you
- Access to good customer support via chat, phone, email, or whatever your preferred communication method is
- Killswitch to disconnect your device from the internet whenever the VPN times out
- Bandwidth, connection speed, and disconnect rates, which vary between providers, with free VPNs usually being the slowest and least reliable
- Secure, up to date IPv4 and IPv6 internet protocols
- Ability to connect the VPN via router if you also have a home or office network
Pricing varies depending on how many items you can tick on the list. Don’t settle for a free VPN that logs your data as it simply contradicts the entire purpose of using a VPN and introduces even greater threats.
Check Your Device Settings
- When you have Wi-Fi running on your phone, it connects automatically to nearby Wi-Fi networks that you either connected to in the past or where no password is required. Turning this option off may mean you won’t be checking on your social media as frequently but could save you from issues later on.
- Likewise, turning off network file sharing makes it harder for attackers to infect your device with malware.
What To Do Next
The rise of remote and hybrid work models has opened so many opportunities that sipping a coconut on some exotic beach while talking to clients or filing reports is starting a legit option.
But if we want to keep this party going, we must beware of the dangers and be prepared for any scenario. Don’t be a victim of your own ambitions. Play it smart and raise awareness of personal security on public Wi-Fi networks.