If you’ve ever browsed the internet on your phone while at your local coffee shop or walking around the mall, chances are you’ve used public Wi-Fi. While public Wi-Fi is certainly a convenient way to access the internet while on the go, most people are unaware of the security vulnerabilities associated with it. To learn more about public Wi-Fi risks and how you can better protect yourself from them, continue reading below.
What Is Public Wi-Fi?
Public Wi-Fi is essentially an access point in which anyone in range can connect wirelessly to the internet without needing a password or security code. Many popular places have their own public Wi-Fi networks, including airports, shopping malls, hotels, restaurants, and more. Typically these public Wi-Fi networks are free to access, however, some may require you to enter an email address or pay a small fee to “upgrade” to a faster connection.
Why You Should Avoid Public Wi-Fi Connections
For the most part, people don’t seem to know about the risks associated with joining unsecured public Wi-Fi hotspots. Most people just seem to care about how fast their webpage or video will load, or if they can download a particular file while on the go. What they don’t seem to realize is that just connecting to a public network can put their personal data at risk.
Things like credit cards, bank account information, account logins, and more can be stolen in the blink of an eye. What’s even worse is the victim will never know that their personal information was stolen until it is too late. In addition, there are multiple ways hackers can utilize these unsecured public Wi-Fi networks to steal your information. Here are some of the strategies they use.
Malicious software, often referred to as “Malware”, is a piece of software specifically written to damage or steal information from any device it infects. Hackers can use the security vulnerabilities found in public Wi-Fi networks to hide their malware, infecting any device that connects to the compromised network.
Man-in-the-middle and Brute Force Attacks
A man-in-the-middle attack utilizes a network’s security vulnerabilities to eavesdrop on any devices connected to it. This means that any information that’s shared between the network and the device that’s connected to it can be seen (and recorded) by the hacker.
Brute force attacks on the other hand are a bit more simple. In this case, the hacker simply enters a password or passcode enough times to eventually break into the device or online account. That being said, hackers typically use special software to crack these codes in a short amount of time.
While these attacks are essentially two different strategies, they can be used in conjunction to access your private online accounts. For example, a hacker may first use a man-in-the-middle attack to spy on you while you’re trying to log into an online account. Once they retrieve your login name, they can use a brute force attack to guess your password and access your online account.
Sometimes, hackers host their own networks disguised as popular Wi-Fi hotspots, such as those found in an airport or hotel lobby. These networks are designed to be unencrypted, allowing the hacker to see and/or do whatever they want to the devices connected to it. You can sometimes spot a fake network by looking for similar names on your Wi-Fi list. For example, if you’re standing near a Starbucks, you may see two Wi-Fi hotspots appear. One may say “Starbucks Wi-Fi” while the other says “Starbucks Free Wi-Fi”. Chances are one of these networks is a fake.
How To Stay Safe On Public Wi-Fi
While you should always avoid connecting to public Wi-Fi connections, sometimes you may not have a choice. If for whatever reason you must connect to the internet using a public network, try doing the following to better protect yourself.
Use A Virtual Private Network (VPN)
VPN’s are typically used to access region blocked websites by masking your internet connection and making it appear to be coming from a different location. However, they can also be used to create a secure connection by encrypting the data that flows through it. This can help prevent anyone from eavesdropping on your device, even while using public Wi-Fi. To check out some of the best VPNs, click here.
Only Visit Secure Websites
While this is a standard suggestion for internet use regardless of your connection, it’s even more important when using unencrypted networks, such as public Wi-Fi. To ensure the website you’re browsing is secure, look for the little padlock symbol in the left of your address bar. Alternatively, you can look at the beginning of the website address. If you see “HTTPS” then the website is secure. If you see “HTTP” however, you should immediately exit the webpage.
Refrain From Entering Any Personal Information
You should never log into any important online accounts or enter any sensitive information (such as your SSN or credit card number) while connected to an unsecured network. While this won’t stop a potential hacker from eavesdropping on your activities, you may be able to keep your more important data safe.
Disable Airdrop and File Sharing
This may seem like an obvious suggestion, but most people don’t disable their file sharing settings before using public Wi-Fi. This is a major hazard as file sharing and/or airdrop allows anyone to send files directly to your device, as long as they’re on the same network. And since this network is public, there could be any number of people sharing malware and other harmful files.
Use Your Cellular Data
When all else fails, using your mobile device network to connect to the internet may be your best option. While not everyone has unlimited data and the connection speed is often slower than public networks, it is much safer to use. At the very least, you’ll have peace of mind knowing your device is protected.
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