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Cybersecurity

How to Stay Safe On Public Wifi

Mark Lukehart

using a public wifi

The increasing accessibility of the internet from every public space, from cafes to airports to resorts, ensures convenience and connectivity. You answer work emails while sipping hot coffee at your favorite coffee shop. You video call your buddy from the shop when you aren’t sure which sunglasses suit you better. Your partner asks if you’ve paid the utilities, you nod and silently make a transaction while dining out. It’s become so important that you would rather not stay at a hotel that doesn’t offer free wi-fi. However, this accessibility comes at a steep cost. 

Is It Dangerous To Use Public Wifi?

Basically, yes. Home networks are usually password-protected, and you can control who connects to your network. You can’t control public networks the same way. The accessibility of public networks makes them inherently insecure. Hackers can connect to these networks just as easily as you. 

They can hijack your network connection to steal your personal data and communications. Without proper security controls, they can expose your smartphones, tablets, and laptops to different types of malware to access confidential information, encrypt important files, or even spy on you. Public hotspots put you and your device at the mercy of cyber-criminals.

Public Wifi Security Risks

There are numerous security risks associated with public Wi-Fi. Knowing these risks will help you appreciate the importance of seemingly annoying security tools. So next time, you’ll probably think twice before putting off that anti-virus update or turning off your VPN service.

1. Man-in-the-middle (MITM) Hack 

Man-in-the-middle or MITM attacks are some of the most common threats on public Wi-Fi. As the name indicates, a hacker can get between your device and the destination, website or service, that you’re trying to reach. So, whatever information you’re sending to the internet will be passed through the hacker first. They can easily access your social media credentials, credit card information, and email content.

Once a hacker has all this information, they can use it to impersonate you, hack into your business network or empty your bank account. There are endless possibilities. 

2. Fake Wi-Fi Hack

Sometimes, hackers will deliberately set up a bogus Wi-Fi network and assign it a name that reads similar to the name of a legitimate free Wi-Fi network that belongs to a particular location. The name may have slightly altered characters that human eyes will overlook at first glance. Instead of connecting to the actual Wi-Fi, you may end up connecting to the hacker’s network. 

From there on, it’s their network, their rules. The hacker will be accessing all the data you send or receive from the internet over their network. 

3. Malware Injection

Public Wi-Fi’s are a perfect distribution point for malware. If you’re connected to unsecured public Wi-Fi and have enabled file-sharing or AirDrop for Mac/iOS, hackers can simply share infected files with you to drop viruses, spyware, or ransomware. Different types of malware can wreak havoc on your system in different ways.

It can enable hackers to see your private files and activities on your computer, encrypt important files, or slow down your system. 

Does this mean you should never connect to public Wi-Fi hotspots? Fortunately, you can take some precautions to keep yourself safe over public Wi-Fi networks. 

What Should You Not Do On Public Wifi?

The first step is to avoid activities that can increase the potential risks that public Wi-Fi pose:

1.  Avoid accessing websites and services that need credentials. This includes social media like Facebook and Twitter, email accounts, and online financial transactions. In short, do not send any personal information to the internet that you wouldn’t want a man-in-the-middle to hear.

2. Do not use free, public Wi-Fi for connecting to your office network. You will be jeopardizing the entire organization and its data if hackers compromise your system over an unsecured network.

3. Do not shop online or enter your credit card information. Hackers can intercept this information to commit theft and fraud.

4. Do not access websites that are not encrypted. Some websites only encrypt their log-in pages. Such websites aren’t secure, and hackers can intercept the traffic to and from such websites. All pages of a website must use HTTPS which means that your data to and from the website’s servers will be encrypted and inaccessible.

5. Do not enable Bluetooth connectivity or file-sharing over public Wi-Fi. You don’t want hackers to secretly share malicious files with your device.

6. Do not enable automatic connection to nearby Wi-Fi’s. Your device may connect to a fake Wi-Fi without you realizing it.

7. If you’re using a VPN (Virtual Private Network), disconnect from the public Wi-Fi as soon as the VPN connection drops. Your IP address and personal data will get exposed if VPN encryption fails.

How To Safely Use Public Wi-Fi

Now that you know what you shouldn’t be doing on public Wi-Fi, here’s a list of what you should be doing:

1. Use a VPN

A VPN application creates an encrypted tunnel from your browser to the website or network that you’re trying to reach over the internet. All your communications will be encrypted and routed through a VPN server. It’s a must-have if you must connect to your office servers over public w-fi. If someone tries to eavesdrop, they’ll only get their hands on encrypted gibberish. 

2. Install an Antivirus

Install a robust antivirus or anti-malware program. It will continuously scan your system to detect signs of infection. Don’t treat it as a one-and-done security solution. Always keep your antivirus program updated so it can detect the latest malware variants. 

3. Enable Firewall

Always keep your firewall on. It’s not impenetrable, but it can still catch malware-infected data packets trying to make it to your system. The key is to treat it as an added layer of protection instead of a complete solution.  

4. Verify the Wi-Fi Network

Always ensure that you’re connecting to the legitimate Wi-Fi network. Fake Wi-Fi networks do not have ‘fake’ plastered over them. Always double-check with an employee, especially if more than two networks seem to belong to the same venue. 

5. Use Cellular Data Instead

If possible, try to access the internet through your mobile phone network. Turn your mobile into a hotspot for any activities that require you to enter or receive sensitive information. Unlike public Wi-Fi, your mobile hotspot will have a strong password enabled by default.

If you’re a business owner, encourage your employees to use their cellular network if they need to check emails or work-related applications on the go.

Final Word

Using public Wi-Fi is tempting but rarely worth the risks it brings. If you’d still like to keep enjoying free Wi-Fi, consider following all the security tips listed above. In any case, avoid sending sensitive information over public networks. 

As a business owner, never underestimate the importance of employee awareness. Let your employees know about the public Wi-Fi risks and how to use it safely. Reiterate the importance of connecting work devices only to secure and private networks. Cybercriminals find a way of getting around even the most rigid security controls. So, better safe than sorry!