Why Is Public Wi-Fi Unsafe?


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It seems almost every person you meet is a digital nomad. Whether you’re a business owner, manager, or junior employee, the COVID-19 pandemic drove many to adapt to a much more flexible working life.

The result is many people are spending more time on public Wi-Fi networks. But what do you know about these networks, their operators, and their level of security?

Key takeaways: 

  • Although it’s convenient and saves you from using your monthly cellphone data allotment, public Wi-Fi networks are seldom safe for anything beyond casual browsing.
  • A restaurant’s password-protected Wi-Fi network typically doesn’t offer the security you need to browse safely.
  • Turn off settings that allow your smartphone or laptop to automatically connect to open Wi-Fi networks and install a VPN to maintain privacy.

Can we trust public Wi-Fi when sending and receiving sensitive business information? Unfortunately, the answer is no.

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 it. Even if a public network requires a password, in most cases, these networks are anything but secure.

Try asking the bartenders at your local cafe about the encryption on their public Wi-Fi. It would be a huge surprise if they knew what you were talking about.

Airports and other public transport hubs sometimes have more protections, but they also tend to be frequent attack targets. The result is that your important data is left exposed and vulnerable to cyber threats.

Network administrators can see which devices are connected at any time. Still, with a few simple software tools, amateurs can hack into the network, enter the admin panel, and access personal information being sent through.

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?

Software-as-a-service (SaaS) companies and e-commerce websites tend to be the main attack targets, but customers who visit such sites are also at risk of:

Malware distribution

Unencrypted Wi-Fi connections are often exploited to distribute malware. All hackers need is for you to allow network file sharing to plant infected software on your device. Alternatively, they might show you a fake link to a software update, and the moment you click it, the malware installs on your device.

Man-in-the-middle attack

In a man-in-the-middle (MITM) attack, intruders use malicious hub spots to intercept the connection between the users and the network and then eavesdrop or impersonate them.

This could result in any of these four scenarios:

  1. In a sniffing-and-spoofing attack, the attacker follows the keystrokes of the victim’s keyboard or touchscreen to capture access credentials for different websites and platforms.
  2. Session hijacking is when the attackers use their new privileges to take over the session and perform actions on your behalf. Sometimes, the attackers gain complete remote control over the victim’s device.
  3. Financial fraud occurs if the device happens to be logged into a financial app during the attack. Any sensitive information can be exploited to commit fraud and illegal money transfers.
  4. Identity theft occurs when attackers assume victims’ personally identifiable information, like their name, email, social media account, or credit card number, to either commit an untraceable crime or harm the victim’s business, relationships, or reputation.

Here’s another example: Say a businesswoman runs an e-commerce fashion brand and spends significant time traveling and working on public Wi-Fi networks. She recently had her Instagram account hacked. The attacker hid all her posts and replaced her bio with a notice saying the account was suspended until a ransom was paid.

The businesswoman didn’t want to lose her 45,000 followers or over 700 images that she had worked so hard on, and that was exactly what the attackers were counting on. She managed to get her account restored by Instagram, but you can imagine how nerve-wracking that must have been.

How to Stay Protected When Using Public Wi-Fi

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 in use on your device lowers your chances significantly of getting hit with an attack. By encrypting your unique internet protocol (IP) address and giving you a fake one instead, you become invisible to other devices on the network.

When choosing a VPN provider, here are some features to look for:

  • Ability to run the VPN on multiple devices simultaneously. 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 you.
  • Access to good customer support via chat, phone, email, or your preferred communication method.
  • Killswitch to disconnect your device from the internet whenever the VPN times out.
  • Bandwidth, connection speed, and disconnect rates. These vary between providers. Free VPNs are usually 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 features. Don’t settle for a free VPN that logs your data, as it 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.
  • Likewise, turning off network file sharing makes it harder for attackers to infect your device with malware.

The rise of remote and hybrid work models has opened so many opportunities that sipping from a coconut on some exotic beach while talking to clients or filing reports is starting to be a legit option.

But to keep this party going, you must beware of the dangers and be prepared for any scenario. Don’t be a victim of your ambitions. Play it smart and remember personal security on public Wi-Fi networks.

FAQs About Public Wi-Fi Networks

Is using public Wi-Fi networks like those found in airports, restaurants, and some offices safe?

While simple browsing may not present a large risk, security experts advise against using unencrypted Wi-Fi networks. These networks are easy targets for data thieves.

What types of activities should you avoid if you’re using public Wi-Fi?

Never use public Wi-Fi if you need to do online banking, shopping, or anything where you have to enter private information into a website. Wait until you’re on a trusted, secure network.

What can make using public Wi-Fi more secure?

A virtual private network (VPN), which hides your true location and identity, will reduce the odds that hackers or snoops will see your personal information.

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