The internet follows us wherever we go these days, and most of us wouldn’t have it any other way. And with more businesses and high-traffic public spaces offering the convenience of free Wi-Fi, it’s even easier to log on and surf the internet, use apps, and stream music or movies. But getting instant, free internet service comes with security risks that you should be aware of the next time you take advantage of free public wifi.
Are public wifi hotspots secure?
“‘Public wifi’ is a wireless hotspot primarily set up by a business that wants to provide free wireless internet access to their customers,” said Chris Parker, founder of WhatIsMyIPAddress.com. “These are commonly restaurants, coffee shops, malls and airports.”
While cybersecurity has come a long way, risks still exist every time you decide to log on using someone else’s public internet access. For example, “one of the difficulties is not knowing what security precautions the operator of the network has taken to limit attacks,” said Parker. “There are things that network operators can do to make Wi-Fi safer to use, but to expect the local bagel place to be able to implement and manage them is probably too much.” The other consideration: The larger the user base of the network (think Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport versus the local mom-and-pop coffee shop), the larger the opportunity for bad actors.
While most people understand that there are inherent risks in logging on to a public wifi system, it doesn’t appear to stop us from doing so. In fact, 55% of consumers worldwide wouldn’t think twice about using free Wi-Fi as long as they are able to get a strong signal, according to a Norton survey. What’s more alarming is what users do when they log on to public wifi. According to one study, 59% checked their personal email, 56% logged on to their social media accounts, 25% checked their banking or other financial accounts, and 17% had entered some form of personally identifiable information.
Top public wifi security risks
The rise of public wifi use coincides with an increase in cybercrime and mobile malware. If you decide to tap into free Wi-Fi, it helps to know the risks of logging on to an unsecure network.
Eavesdropping (aka, snooping and sniffing): This is the unauthorized reading of data as it flows across a network.
Man-in-the-middle attacks: This happens when network traffic is intercepted and modified or redirected to a website that the hacker controls. This allows hackers to gain access to user credentials, accounts and other personal information.
Attacks on devices: This is an attempt to gain unauthorized access to a victim’s computer by scanning for exploitable weaknesses and exposed services.
What should you not do on public wifi?
The best way to truly protect yourself from an attack on free public wifi is to not use it. Assuming that’s not an option sometimes, you’ll want to use public wifi security best practices to better guard your personal information. For example, avoid using sites or apps that may reveal your sensitive personal information, like financial, medical or government programs, said Parker. “Even if the network is secure, you need to be aware of the people that may be able to see your screen and keyboard to get your usernames and passwords.”
How to securely use public wifi?
Besides staying off of websites that may reveal your important personal information, use a password manager. It can help keep track of multiple passwords so that if one is compromised, you won’t have to worry about access across all of the sites you visit. Using two-factor authentication adds a layer of security to any account you access. Finally, a virtual private network (VPN) can help reduce the risk of insecure traffic sniffing. “There are physical VPN devices such as Keezel and Invizbox, that act as a firewall and keep your devices from being probed while on public wifi,” Parker said.
While it’s not possible to wipe out all opportunities for a potential hack when using a public system, implementing these best practices makes your device a harder target to attack.