We are using public Wi-Fi all the time – in a hotel lobby, at the coffee shop, or while waiting at the airport. However, there are some things that you have to know. Public Wi-Fi networks have many threats and you might be putting yourself in danger. Data, which is sent through public Wi-Fi networks can be easily intercepted by cyber-criminals. Below you’ll find some basic information about the public Wi-Fi threats and how to avoid that.

What are the risks

An often danger is fake Wi-FI networks. Usually, they have similar names to legitimate public Wi-Fi networks. The danger behind it is that they are created to trick and confuse users. After you connect to this kind of a fake Wi-Fi network, everything you do online is monitored by someone. And yes, usually it is cyber-criminals. With such access, they can scan your internet activities for banking and social media log-in information.

Those public Wi-Fi connections are also often used to distribute various types of malware. Hackers can easily spread malicious software and viruses onto your computer, smartphone or tablet. This can cause very serious damage to your device, privacy and personal security.

Why is it unsafe?

Many public Wi-Fi networks use no password or encryption of any sort. In that case, attackers can see all the traffic on the network and it does not even require any special hacking skills. There is plenty of software floating around that enables spying on unsecured networks with just a few mouse clicks. 

People assume that public Wi-Fi that uses WPA2-PSK (aka the standard data flow encryption in most modern routers) is safe. That would be true if we’d be talking about our home network, where we share a password with people we trust.

In a public place like a cafe, anyone that connects before you do can spy on your activity. It is called “spying on your handshake” with the network. In other words, it can also be called as the communication that occurs between your device and an access point when you first connect to the hotspot. The attacker can steal your encryption key and see all of your traffic.

Man-in-the-middle-attacks. It is simply a bad person who sits between your device and the internet connection. Many times this kind of attacker will set-up a fake Wi-Fi hotspot that looks like a legit one. If you connect to it, all of your traffic will go through the attackers’ computer and he will be able to see whatever you are doing. 

How to stay safe on a public Wi-Fi network

1. Do not enter sensitive websites.

You should think twice before checking your bank account on a public network. Reading an online magazine or checking your social media accounts is fine, but we recommend to avoid entering such websites like online stores or banks, where you have to enter a password or put in credit card details. Of course, this kind of websites encrypt your data to some level, but it is never guaranteed protection. If you care about your safety, we suggest to enter these websites at home or on a 100% trusted network. You can also use a VPN service or a mobile hotspot, but we’ll cover that a bit later.

2. Use only trusted networks

Anyone with a simple router can set-up his/hers own Wi-Fi network. When looking for Wi-Fi networks, choose only those that you really recognize in the location you are. E.g. you are in the New York airport and “JFK Int. airport Wi-Fi” is likely safer than “goodwifi123”.

3. Connect to password-protected networks.

A classic and the most common example is a cafe with a password written on the wall. Although this is just a basic protection, it is still more secure than a true open network. Of course, you should still be cautious, as you are sharing the network with public in that space.

4. Uncheck “Connect automatically”

This action will make 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. You can uncheck the “Connect automatically” feature in your Wi-Fi settings.

5. The firewall has to be turned on all the time

When on any network (even if you are comfortably sitting at home), you should be sure that your firewall is on. If you are using Windows, type in “Windows security” in your search box, open the app and select “Firewall & Network protection”. The message you are looking for should say “Firewall is on”.  

Alternatives

As for the public Wi-FI alternatives, we have a few options: if you have the opportunity, use your phone as a mobile hotspot. By using your mobile data, you control the network and who is on it. Another good option is to use a Virtual Private Network (VPN) service. The VPN app encrypts all the data you send over Wi-Fi. In other words, it hides your data from anyone who is listening on the same Wi-Fi network as you. Unfortunately, one of the cons is that the best VPN services are paid. However, it is worth to pay a few bucks per month to have complete privacy on a public Wi-Fi or at home.