The rapid spread of public Wi-Fi has changed our usage habits, how we shop, and the way we work. Free, open Wi-Fi is critical in getting people connected where mobile data is too expensive or there’s no signal. But if your device isn’t secure, a hacker could steal passwords, personal data, or even work out where you live. Fortunately, it’s easy to protect yourself against the risks if you follow the tips below.
What Are the Risks?
The riskiest networks are those that don’t require a password to join. On all of your devices, open Wi-Fi is usually displayed without a padlock beside it. Many businesses prefer to offer access this way because distributing the password can be difficult. On these networks, all of the traffic flowing to and from your computer is unencrypted – that is, being transmitted as plain text.
Even if your hotspot has a password, it’s perfectly possible for someone to get the log-in details and monitor all the activity on the network.
When you join a public Wi-Fi hotspot and start to access websites, all of your browsing activity is technically visible to everyone else on the network. All it takes to listen in on your connection is some relatively simple software that’s easily available online. Similarly, a hacker can set up a fake network and advertise it as a legitimate hotspot. You might connect to the fake hotspot assuming that it’s the real thing.
All of these hacking methods present a danger to you, and can leave you open to a variety of different attacks, including:
Interception of data. Criminals can harvest your personal details when you fill in an online form or intercept the cookies that keep you logged into social media networks and online stores. With this data, hackers can steal your identity and purchase items in your name.
Monitoring. The hacker can see which URLs you’re loading. Using this, they can find out your name or your home location.
DNS spoofing. This technique will redirect you to a fake website when you type in a URL or click a link. If you’re browsing an online banking site, the hacker could redirect you to a fake version of that site and trick you into logging in again with their fake form.
Content injection. The hacker can intercept the web pages you’re browsing and insert malicious content into them, changing words, pictures, or more. That might mean displaying a fake login form to capture your details, or tricking you into downloading illegal content.
These may sound unlikely, but on public Wi-Fi, hacks are incredibly common, and it’s not just a risk to you. Once you go back home or connect to your office network, you could spread viruses and compromise the security of other people as well.
6 Wi-Fi Safety Tips
It’s clear that the risks of public Wi-Fi are not to be understated. Thankfully there are ways to protect yourself while benefitting from the convenience it offers.
1. Check Your Firewall is Active
You should have a firewall running all the time, and you need to keep your virus definitions updated to protect against the most recent threats.
Windows is quite good at prompting you to set up a firewall, so you may have already done this. Turn on automatic virus definition updates or try to get into the habit of updating this when the reminder appears.
If you’re using a Mac, you might never have bothered to use your firewall. Now’s the time familiarize yourself with it. Make sure it is switched on before connecting to public Wi-Fi.
2. Set Up Your Device Correctly
First, look at the security settings on your computer. If you’ve never done this before, you probably haven’t got it set up correctly.
On Windows, you should set your default connection profile as Public. That will safeguard you against accidentally connecting to an unknown network with the wrong security settings.
With your security settings fixed, you can now connect to your known, secured networks as Private connections. Typically, this will include your home, office, or school Wi-Fi.
3. Install Software Updates
Try to get in the habit of installing software updates as soon as they’re available, as they usually contain security patches. Staying up-to-date will protect you against existing vulnerabilities that hackers can exploit easily.
4. Use a VPN
Even if you don’t use public Wi-Fi very often, it’s worth setting up a VPN to protect your connection. VPNs work by creating an encrypted tunnel that all of your traffic flows through. This ensures that your activity is hidden, regardless of the network you’re on. VPNs are a very secure way to browse, and they’re arguably the best defense against public Wi-Fi security issues.
That being said, certain VPNs will slow down your connection, and for some, this can be an issue for usability. If performance is important to you, some of the most reliable providers include IPVanish, Cyberghost, and ExpressVPN.
5. Delete the Network When You’re Finished
Get into the habit of deleting public Wi-Fi networks from all of your devices as soon as you’re done with the connection. Keeping a lean Wi-Fi history helps to avoid the possibility that you’ll connect to a fake network later.
6. Use Common Sense
If you have to use a public Wi-Fi network without a VPN, don’t connect to sensitive websites like your online banking. Don’t type in credit card numbers and avoid using any site that doesn’t have HTTPS.
If you’re unsure, disconnect your smartphone from Wi-Fi and use your mobile data connection instead.
For most of us, getting online is an essential part of daily life. In our rush to connect to the sites we need, it’s natural to be tempted by public Wi-Fi. But if you’re not prepared, this could open you up to identity theft, data loss, and worse. Boost your security by tweaking device settings and being sensible about the sites you visit. Using the tips and techniques in this article, you have everything you need to protect yourself without disruption.