Everywhere you go now, there are these free wireless internet signs. Public Wi-Fi can be found in popular public places like airports, coffee shops, shopping centres, restaurants, hotels and more — and it allows you to access the Internet for free. These “hotspots” are so widespread and common that people frequently connect to them without thinking twice. Picture this, you have just ordered your latte from your local coffee shop and while waiting you check your bank account and catch up on some social media, this is a typical scenario for many of us, but did you know you might be unaware of some threats lurking in the background on public WI-FI. This freedom comes at a price, though, and few truly understand the public Wi-Fi risks associated with these connections.
The Risks of a Public Wi-fi
The same features that make free Wi-Fi hotspots desirable for everyday consumers make them desirable for hackers; namely, that it requires no password or authentication to establish a network connection. This creates an amazing opportunity for the hacker to get unfettered access to unsecured devices on the same network.
Encryption normally helps protect your network traffic from prying eyes. For example, even if your neighbour at home is within range of your Wi-Fi network, they can’t see the web pages you’re viewing. This wireless traffic is encrypted between your laptop, tablet, or smartphone and your wireless router. It’s encrypted with your Wi-Fi passphrase.
When you connect to an open Wi-Fi network like one at a coffee shop or airport, the network is generally unencrypted — you can tell because you don’t have to enter a passphrase when connecting. Your unencrypted network traffic is then clearly visible to everyone in range. People can see what unencrypted web pages you’re visiting, what you’re typing into unencrypted web forms, and even see which encrypted websites you’re connected to — so if you’re connected to your bank’s website, they’d know it, although they wouldn’t know what you were doing.
Thanks to software vulnerabilities, there are also ways that attackers can slip malware onto your computer without you even knowing. A software vulnerability is a security hole or weakness found in an operating system or software program. Hackers can exploit this weakness by writing code to target a specific vulnerability, and then inject the malware onto your device.
These “rogue access points” trick victims into connecting to what they think is a legitimate network because the name sounds reputable. Say you’re staying at the Goodnight Inn and want to connect to the hotel’s Wi-Fi. You may think you’re selecting the correct one when you click on “GoodNite Inn,” but you haven’t. Instead, you’ve just connected to a rogue hotspot set up by cybercriminals who can now view your sensitive information.
How to Stay Safe on Public Wi-Fi
The best way to know your information is safe while using public Wi-Fi is to use a virtual private network (VPN) service. However, if you must use public Wi-Fi, follow these tips to protect your information.
- Allow your Wi-Fi to auto-connect to networks
- Log into any account via an app that contains sensitive information. Go to the website instead and verify they are using HTTPS before logging in
- Leave your Wi-Fi or Bluetooth on if you are not using them
- Access websites that hold your sensitive information, such as such as financial or healthcare accounts
- Log onto a network that isn’t password protected
- Disable file sharing
- Only visit sites using HTTPS
- Log out of accounts when done using them
- Use a VPN.
- Make sure all your software is updated including Windows Update etc