Wi-Fi is near ubiquitous these days. From coffee shops to airports to public spaces like parks and town squares, everywhere you turn there is a wi-fi network waiting to for you to hit “connect.” These networks are seriously convenient, and can save you a ton on data usage. It’s no doubt that wi-fi is an incredible tool as it powers so much of what we do – both for business and personally. It also keeps us connected no matter our location around the globe. Yet, public wi-fi use brings with it some risks, many of which you may not be aware of. Before you connect, it’s essential to know the risks and take measures to keep your connection and valuable information safe on wi-fi.
So, What’s a “Public Wi-Fi" Network?
A public wi-fi network refers to basically any network outside your home network. It’s a network in a public place like a bar, or restaurant or park, that is owned by the establishment or in some cases by a city or municipality. Think of it as any network you connect to outside your home (or the home of a friend), and something you use often while traveling. These networks are often configured without passwords, or with very simple passwords that are easy for people to remember. Often, these passwords are associated with the establishment name or service (for example, Coffee123). While this is user-friendly it also raises some serious risks when it comes to privacy, which we’ll examine below.
Common Places for Public Wi-Fi Networks
- Airports & Transit Centers
- Coffee Shops
- Public Places
- Shops or Retailers
- Trains & Buses
- Restaurants & Bars
What are the Risks of Public Wi-Fi?
Unsecured networks with weak passwords (or no passwords at all) mean that anyone – hackers, snoops or other bad people – can easily gain access to your connection and information. What's more, these networks often lack strong security aside from their passwords; security firm Kaspersy reported ¼ of public wi-fi networks don’t use encryption at all. This lack of security means it's far too easy for hackers to join, and then spy on, what you’re doing. In some instances, they can even collect your information or take over your computer.
Some of the most common risks while using public wi-fi networks include the following:
Man in the Middle Attacks
A man-in-the middle (MITM) attack occurs when a hacker places their device between your device and the connection to the wi-fi hotspot. In simple terms, they redirect your traffic to run through their machine first. This is often done by imitating a real network, as we explain below. Unsuspecting users will then connect to the network thinking it’s the legitimate network, causing their traffic to run through the hacker’s machine and enabling the hacker to steal logins, passwords and to eavesdrop on anything you’re doing. Talk about scary! This can be a personal invasion of privacy, or worse, a threat to your business if you are working on the network.
Malware comes from a variety of places, including viruses, ransomware, worms, adware and trojan horses. It is often introduced via a software vulnerability, or a security weakness in a program or operating system installed on your computer. Malware can have damaging effects on your internet experience, doing anything from draining your bandwidth to harming your computers, and of course giving hackers a way to access your machine and files. Unsecured wi-fi can present an easy way for a hacker to inject malware, or even utilize your computer as a way to distribute it.
Also referred to as a honeypots or rogue hotspots, these are what they sound like; bad hotspots you unintentionally connect to. These hackers set up hotspots which may look or sound legitimate and often mimic the name of a real hotspot nearby, to trick you into connecting to a network. Then, the criminals can steal whatever information they want from you and your machine. This type of hotspot is often used to inject malware as well and can also be referred to as an “evil twin” attack.
This is a baseline security risk; that you connect to a site that does not make use of encryption. Although increasingly rare since the introduction of https, there are still unencrypted sites out there. This means if information is intercepted, it’s easy to read straight away without any effort. Whereas if it’s encrypted, it is extremely difficult or impossible. We talk about encryption a lot (we are a VPN company after all!) and believe it to be absolutely essential to use each time you connect.
Packet sniffing is the process of eavesdropping on things sent and received over a wi-fi network. A tool called a packet sniffer will reveal everything going over the wi-fi network that’s unencrypted, further supporting the importance of encryption mentioned above. It's good to note a packet sniffer isn’t always used for negative purposes; it can also help troubleshoot network and performance issues when used legitimately.
Session hijacking is when a bad person intercepts information about your computer and its connection to websites or other services. Then, they can use that info to configure their own computer to match yours and “hijack” or take over the connection.
What Are the Consequences of Unsecured Wi-Fi Use?
As you can see, there are myriad risks to using a public wi-fi network. These situations can have some serious consequences, including the following:
- Harm to Computer: Malware, trojans and other viruses can damage your computer in addition to putting your information at risk.
- Theft of Personal Information: Things like login name and password, financial information, personal communications and any PII can be stolen by hackers.
- Use of Your Identity: If a hacker gains access to your accounts or too much personal information, they can use it to make transactions, harm your credit score and even impact your relationships.
- Data Collection: Collection of data by advertisers, or the owner of the wi-fi network (for example a business or coffee shop who might be collecting information about you) which you opted-in to letting them collect when hitting the checkbox.
- General Breach of Privacy: Most of the items mentioned above indicate at very minimum a violation or invasion of your privacy and your right to that privacy.
How to Avoid Danger on Public Wi-Fi?
Feeling stressed with all those dangers of public wi-fi? Thinking of not connecting to a public wi-fi network again? Luckily, you don’t have to take things that far. There are some simple things you can do to greatly increase your protection on public wi-fi networks and reduce your risk and vulnerabilities.
As with many things, awareness is key. Knowing a wi-fi network could pose a risk to your privacy - and keeping this in mind before you hit that connect button - can mean the difference between connecting to the rogue hotspot designed to trick you and the legitimate one. It can also help you make proactive choices to protect your privacy.
Use a VPN
A VPN is the best way to protect yourself each time you use public wi-fi. A VPN encrypts your connection to secure it, so that even if someone intercepts it they cannot see anything you’re doing on the network. It keeps your information safe, and makes up for any holes in security of the wi-fi network itself.
Avoid Accessing Private Details
It may seem obviously, but refrain from doing revealing activities on a public wi-fi network. Don't log in to your bank account or access highly-sensitive details or information just in case. If you don’t do anything sensitive, even if you are hacked, the consequences won’t be as dire.
Turn Off Sharing
Some devices enable discovery modes, air drop functionality or other similar sharing type features. While these are convenient, they are substantially riskier on public wi-fi networks where other machines are connected and may gain access to your files. Wait to do these types of shares when you’re at home or on a trusted network that is private.
Check for HTTPS
Https, as opposed to http, is a web prefix that indicates a secured connection. Be sure any site you connect to begins with this prefix and that your information is encrypted. Do not connect to sites that simply use http.
Activate the Firewall or Antivirus
Ensure that features designed to protect your privacy, such as firewalls or antivirus software, are activated on your computer. This can help protect from some intrusions.
Read Privacy Notices
This is an obvious refrain, but be sure to read any privacy policies or similar warnings that may pop up when connecting to a new network. Sometimes, these warnings alert you to practices such as tracking or sharing your data with the network owner (often in “exchange” for using it for free).
Stay Safe on Public Wi-Fi with VyprVPN
As you can see, public wi-fi isn’t as safe or straightforward as you might have thought! The #1 best way to stay safe and protected is simply to use a VPN each time you connect. VyprVPN has automatic, easy to use features like Public Wi-Fi Protection which ensures you are protected anytime you connect to an unknown network that you don’t designate as safe.
Give VyprVPN a try and keep your details protected today!