The internet is full of cybercriminals and other bad elements. Connecting to the internet, particularly using a public Wi-Fi hotspot opens you up to the risks of spoofing and spying. Hackers can easily get their hands on your personal information, making you vulnerable to identity theft, loss of money and open to other hazards.
It is easy and mostly free to connect to public WiFi, so no wonder most people love using it. Some malls, restaurants, libraries, hospitals, etc. offering public Wi-Fi require you to enter a wireless network password while some others leave it open.
However, remember TANSTAFL – There Isn’t No Such Thing as A Free Lunch, and it applies to free public Wi-Fi too. You may end up paying a hefty price by compromising your data and information security by using such open networks unless you protect yourself – in some cases, you may also be putting other people at risk too.
Risks Associated with public Wi-Fi
Public Wi-Fi networks are not only open for use by the public, but they are also breeding grounds for hacking and online spying. Irrespective of whether you access a public Wi-Fi protected by a network password or not, your online activities are vulnerable to the peering eyes of cybercriminals.
Let us begin by taking a look at some common risks associated with the use of public Wi-Fi, so you know what you need to protect yourself from:
These virus containing files can hijack your computing device (smartphone, tablet, or laptop) and steal the information stored on these machines. You may be lured into downloading these malicious files in the name of system upgrade or other ways.
MITM (Man in the middle) attacks are very common on public Wi-Fi networks. This is where hackers insert themselves in the middle of the communication and steal all the information being exchanged on the communication channel.
Villain public Wi-Fis
Sometimes you may fall in the trap of connecting to rogue public Wi-Fi networks which have been set up for the sole purpose of stealing all the information carried over the free network. Once you are on such a network, you have played into the hands of the cybercriminals and all your data transmitted online while you are connected to this network is now in the hands of the villains who may use the information to harm you in many ways.
Not all websites and public Wi-Fi networks use encryption, which makes you vulnerable to cookie theft. Once they get hold of your session cookies during such an unencrypted communication, third parties can easily replicate them and transact just as you.
Computer Worms, unlike viruses, do not need a program to execute. They can simply transfer from one device to another when they use the same network. When you are on a public Wi-Fi, you make yourself vulnerable to the worms on other people’s devices thatare also using the same open network. If your devices do not have adequate protection installed, they are likely to get infected.
Packet analyzers or sniffers can be used to monitor the traffic on any network. The real purpose of this hardware is to record network traffic to track harmful activity, but it can easily be used by online thieves to trace your internet activities. Packet sniffing can be easily installed and used for spoofing and spying on public Wi-Fi users as they go about their online activities.
How to stay safe on public Wi-Fi?
This all may have scared you, and it may sound like using public Wi-Fi is always unsafe and makes you vulnerable. However, there are steps you can take to use public Wi-Fi while staying protected. After, all it is free, and it will be a shame to let it go waste. And you may not have any other option, or at least not a cost-effective one, to get online while you are on a vacation where no other network is available.
So, here is the good news. You do have defenses you can adopt to overcome the threats of public Wi-Fi. You just have to follow some security directions and stay vigilant. Here are some tips to help you stay safe on public Wi-Fi networks.
- Stick With HTTPS
Never connect to a website over unencrypted connections. Make sure the website uses SSL/HTTPS to keep the data interchange encrypted so that even if someone were to launch an MITM attack, they will not be able to make sense of the information being transmitted between your browser and the website. Some browser plugins like Force-TLS and HTTPS-Everywhere may also help. These ensure that you do not accidentally use a plain HTTP connection accidentally.
SSL (Secure Socket Layer) turns on the more secure HTTPS (Hyper Text Transfer Protocol Secure) which ensures that only the communicating endpoints know how to encrypt and decrypt the data on the communication channel, so hackers cannot steal your information during transit. If you are a website owner and want to protect your business reputation with securing your customer’s data than visit ClickSSL and pick an SSL certificate to meet your needs.
- Disable file sharing
The file sharing option is turned on by default on most devices. This is a convenience on secure and private networks but becomes a huge vulnerability on public W-Fi networks. Ensure that your file sharing options are turned off before connecting to a public Wi-Fi to keep your computing machines and your data stored on these devices safe.
- Turn off auto-connect
There are lots of public Wi-Fi networks around you and if your Wi-Fi is on, the auto-connect setting will allow the device to join with any available Wi-Fi network. Always keep your Wi-Fi turned off unless you decide to connect to a Wi-Fi network. Keeping your Wi-Fi turned off is not going to cost you anything but will keep you safe from public Wi-Fis that you may not find safe to connect with.
- Verify the public Wi-Fi network
Whenever you connect with a new public Wi-fi, make it a habit to verify the name of the connection with workers employed in that area. This will help you stay away from rogue networks created by cybercriminals. Better still, try not to connect with open networks that do not use password protection to authenticate the connections. It is safer to use Wi-Fi networks that employees and clients connect with for their internet needs.
- Use a VPN
Using a VPN (Virtual Private Network) is the safest thing to do when making use of a public Wi-Fi. VPN makes an encrypted tunnel for all your activities on the internet. This protects your data from being stolen while it is being exchanged between your computing device and the servers you connect to. VPN leaves no scope of a data leak as it provides true end-to-end encryption.
Your VPN may also offer an anonymous proxy which you can use to browse anonymously without giving away your actual location, which makes it difficult for someone to track or trace you.
- Use security apps
Irrespective of your network’s security level, it is critical that you keep your devices secure too. Make use of a good anti-virus or anti-malware app to detect any suspicious activity on your computing device. Security apps work as an added layer of protection against viruses and malware looking to invade your computer or smartphone. Ensure that you are always on the latest version of security software installed on your devices; more so if you make use of public Wi-Fi which may be carrying malware whose crack may need a software update.
- Browsing patterns
The biggest risks of using public Wi-Fis are spying and theft of sensitive information. It is better to change your browsing habits on public Wi-Fi networks. Irrespective of the necessary safety measures, there is nothing called a 100% protection. Try not to engage in financial transactions and sensitive information exchange over public Wi-Fi. It is sometimes just not worth the risk of getting your personal and sensitive data compromised, which may not only be dangerous but may sometimes lead to irreversible losses.
- Safe password practices
Keep your account secure, and this is not limited to online banking and shopping. It also means keeping your social media, email and online data storage accounts protected by using strong, hard to guess passwords. Never use dictionary words or information known to the public – use random passwords with combinations of upper-case letters, small case characters, numbers, and symbols. Use 2-factor authentication where you can, so that even if your password does get compromised, no one can enter your account. Also, avoid using same passwords everywhere.Be extremely careful on public Wi-Fi networks, and never use the “save password” option or auto logins. Ensure you always logout completely when done using a login.
- Delete public Wi-Fi networks
Your device is set up by default to remember the Wi-Fi networks you connect to. Though this is convenient, it also means your computing machine will automatically get on the public Wi-Fi network if you happen to be in the coverage area and your Wi-Fi is turned on. For security reasons, always remove the public Wi-Fi networks once you are done using them. Remember, hackers can attack networks too and if your device connects to a compromised network, you are going to be vulnerable.
The internet is an essential part of our daily lives now – whether you speak of work, entertainment or just staying connected with friends and family. Irrespective of our social or economic status, we spend a lot of time online. Wi-Fi have now become a common place – including private buildings, schools, malls, offices, libraries, hospitals, restaurants, and more. Most of these places offer public Wi-Fi networks which are hard to resist, though they come with their own set of threats.
It is almost impossible to stay away from public Wi-Fi networks completely, but you can take some essential safety precautions to stay safe online when connecting on such open internet gateways. Most security vulnerabilities result from ignorance, and vigilance is your best guard in such situations. No matter how much protection you cover yourself with; public Wi-Fi will always carry an element of risk. Use the techniques mentioned in this article to keep your use of public Wi-Fi networks secure.