Why you should not use public Wi-Fi

WiFi image

Computer and smartphone users are using public Wi-Fi all the time — in a coffee shop, at the airport or simply in a library or other public spot.  However, not many people are aware of the threats that could be behind any public Wi-Fi network.  There are some things that you have to know before using public Wi-Fi hotspots in order to browse safely.  It is important to understand that data, which is sent through public Wi-Fi networks, can be easily intercepted by cyber-criminals or hackers.  Below you’ll find some basic information about the public Wi-Fi threats and how to avoid them.

What are the risks of using public Wi-Fi networks?

One of the most common dangers is fake Wi-FI networks.  If you are a basic internet user, it might be pretty hard to notice because usually those networks have similar names to legitimate public Wi-Fi networks.  The danger behind fake networks is that they are created to trick users, leading them to believe that they actually joined a legitimate Wi-Fi network.  After the user connects to this type of fake Wi-Fi network, everything that person does online is monitored by someone who hosted that particular network.  Of course, the individual who are doing this are what we can term “cyber-criminals”.  With such access, they can scan your internet activities for banking and social media log-in information, as well as your general desktop activities.

Those public Wi-Fi connections can also be used to distribute various types of malware.  Hackers can easily spread malicious software and viruses onto your computer, smartphone or tablet by simply using fake Wi-Fi networks.  This can cause very serious damage to your device, privacy and not to mention, personal security, of course.

Why is it unsafe?

The majority of public Wi-Fi networks nowadays use no password or encryption of any sort, and that is extremely dangerous.  If a network is unprotected,  potential attackers can see all the traffic on the network and it does not even require any special hacking skills.  There is plenty of downloadable software floating around the internet that enables spying on unsecured networks with just a few mouse clicks.  Sounds creepy, right?

People assume that public Wi-Fi uses WPA2-PSK (also known as the standard data flow encryption in most modern routers), which is safe.  This could be true if we were talking about our own home network, where we only share passwords with people we trust.

In a public place like a cafe though, if a person connects to the network before you do, s/he can spy on your activity.  It is unofficially called “spying on your handshake” with the network.  In other words, it is the communication that occurs between your device and an access point when you first connect to the hotspot.  From here, the attacker can steal your encryption key and see all of your traffic.

Another important attack type that you should know about are the so-called “Man-in-the-middle-attacks”.  During a man-in-the-middle-attack, a cyber criminal secretly relays, and possibly alters, the communications between two parties who believe they are directly communicating with each other.  Oftentimes, this kind of attacker will set-up some sort of a fake Wi-Fi hotspot that will look like a legitimate one.  If you connect to it, all of your traffic will go through the attackers’ computer and s/he will be able to see whatever you are doing with your device.

 

How to protect yourself while browsing a public Wi-Fi network:

  1. Do not enter sensitive websites.

If you’re on a public Wi-FI network, please think twice before entering your bank account details or logging into any kind of premium service (like Netflix). You can read online magazines or watch Youtube videos, but it is strongly recommended for you to avoid entering such websites like online stores or banks, where you have to enter your password or put in credit card details.  Of course, bank or premium entertainment services have encryption, but it is never guaranteed protection and you should be aware of that.  If you care about your safety, only access sensitive websites at home or on a 100% trusted network. You can also use a VPN service or a mobile hotspot, but we’ll speak about that later.

2. Connect to trusted networks only

Anyone with a simple router can setup his/her own Wi-Fi network and it does not require any advanced knowledge.  When looking for Wi-Fi networks, choose only those that you really recognise in the location where you are.  E.g. if you’re waiting for a flight in Los Angeles airport “LAX Free Wi-Fi”, it is much likely to be safer than “good_wifi321”.

  1. Prefer password-protected Wi-Fi networks.

A classic, and the most common example, is a “Starbucks” cafe with a password written on the blackboard.  Although this is just a basic protection and the password will probably be “Starbucks123”, it is still more secure than an actual open network.  Of course, you should still be cautious, as you are sharing the network with the public in that space.

        4. Uncheck “Connect automatically”

By unchecking “connect automatically” in your wireless network settings, you’ll be sure that you use the networks you intend to and won’t get connected automatically to an unsecured Wi-Fi network without your knowledge.

This usually happens when you connect to a network that is protected with a password. Disabling this option simply requires you to uncheck the option, “Connect automatically” in your settings.


5. Turn on the firewall and have it all the time.

 When on any Wi-Fi network (even if you think you are safe at home), you should be sure that your firewall is turned on. You can check this very easily: if you are using Windows, type in “Windows security” in your search box, open the app and select “Firewall & Network protection”. The message you need to receive is “Firewall is on”.

If you are not aware of what firewalls do, it basically examines each message and blocks those that do not meet the specified security criteria. Firewalls are necessary to protect confidential information from unauthorised access.

 

Alternatives

As for the public Wi-FI alternatives, there are other options available: use your phone as a mobile hotspot if you have the opportunity.  You can setup your own password and easily monitor who is connected to your hotspot.  By using your mobile data, you control the network and who is on it.  If you don’t have any mobile data but you need an internet access, a good option is to use a VPN (Virtual Private Network) service.  You can setup your own VPN network, but it does require some technical knowledge and basic internet users often choose commercial VPN providers.  VPN client app encrypts all the data you send over Wi-Fi or mobile data.  In other words, it can hide your data from anyone who is connected on the same Wi-Fi network.  Unfortunately, one of the cons is that the best VPN services are paid.  However, just paying that little extra can help to protect all of your devices and it is definitely worth the money.
 

Will Fastiggi
Originally from England, Will is an Upper Primary Coordinator now living in Brazil. He is passionate about making the most of technology to enrich the education of students.
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