How to Stay Safe When Using Public Wi-Fi

by | 3 Aug, 2022 | Security

13 Minute Read

We will all likely have used public Wi-Fi, especially if you ever needed access to the Internet on the go or had run out of data on your mobile phone.  You will come across public Wi-Fi (also known as hotspots) at coffee shops, airport terminals, hotels and just about anywhere that offers internet to the general public.  Access is often provided for free and we are so used to seeing them pop up when using our devices that we don’t often give a second thought about using them.  Our eagerness to check email, check our social feeds, the latest news, messaging services or access key business information (such as accessing your bank account) have us hopping onto the nearest network and connecting without thinking twice.

However, have you ever stopped and wondered about how secure the network you joined actually is?  This article explores the risks and solutions to staying safe whilst using public Wi-Fi.

TL;DR

  • Public Wifi networks are not secure:
    In using a public Wifi network you are putting yourself at risk of attack without taking necessary precautions and action.
  • You are not in control of the network:
    When using a public network you are not in control of the setup meaning you may be accessing insecure websites or become at risk of being “spoofed” or involved in a man-in-the-middle attack.
  • Choose your networks carefully:
    Anyone can setup a hotspot and make it look legitimate.  Always check you are connecting to the correct network.
  • Use a VPN or at least SSL connections:
    It’s advisable to use a VPN service to encrypt your connection, but at the very least you should only be using services utilising SSL and HTTPS connections.
  • Create your own network or use your own device:
    Use your own mobile data as much as possible on the move and create your own secure network.
  • Keep up to date:
    Always secure your operating systems and apps.

Public Wi-Fi Explained

public wifi explained

Public Wi-Fi is often provided for free.  You scan the local area for networks and simply connect to the Wi-Fi network.  You usually have to enter your name and email and then get a “connected” confirmation message.  The moment you are connected you can then surf the web and access the Internet as normal.

Free public wifi is not always as fast as your private Wi-Fi connection at home. It’ll be enough to check your e-mail or Facebook but will probably take you several minutes to stream a video or music on Spotify or Netflix.

They are also known as a Wi-Fi hotspot which is basically somewhere you can connect to the internet. Wi-Fi hotspots are popular with mobile and tablet users as they provide access for internet access without eating into your mobile data allowance.  This is why public internet access still remains popular today.

Known Public Wi-Fi Providers To Look Out For

known public wifi providers

When necessary, you should seek WiFi from recognized public companies.

Often, it’s worth checking for free wifi when eating out, especially in chain restaurants since they are often partners with wifi providers. The same applies to big corporations on the high street. Thus, for example, O2 provides free WiFi at Mcdonald’s, while The Cloud offers free WiFi at Pret a Manger.

The BT network has one of the largest wifi networks in the world, with more than five million unique hotspots nationwide. These hotspots are located on flights throughout several British airlines, in Terminal Painter lounges, at Welcome Break gas stations, at stores such as Manchester Arndale Shopping Centre and Starbucks cafés, and in Starbucks any McDonald’s outlets.

LEARN MORE
Are Websites Obsolete? The Future of Websites

BT also provides Wi-Fi to Thistle, Hilton and Hastings hotels, and quite a few conference centres, law courts, and exhibition venues.

O2 has established over 16,000 Wi-Fi hotspots around the UK, and you can register at any of those free of charge if you’re an O2 customer. If you’re not an O2 customer, your phone will connect automatically once you arrive, and you will have to register manually.

O2 has a number of partnerships with retail chains and Subway restaurants. O2’s Wi-Fi hotspots can be found in Subway, Argos, Costa Coffee, Toni&Guy, Cafe Rouge, All Bar One, William Hill, Strada, McDonald’s, and Pizza Hut, as well as in O2 stores, O2 Academy music venues, and The O2 in London.

Public Wifi Security Risks

public wifi security risks

Wi-Fi hotspots’ attractiveness for customers makes it easy for hackers to infiltrate them; that is to say, they require no user authentication to trust a connection. This gives hackers an incredible chance to try unfettered reconnaissance on all devices on an unsecured network.

The greatest threat to free Wi-Fi security is the availability of the hacker to position himself between you and the access point. After passing your information to the hacker, you’re actually sending the information to that person.

In this setup, the hacker has access to any information you send out over the Internet, including your email, credit card number, and security credentials for your business network. Once he has this information, he can then use it at his leisure to access your systems as if he were you.

Hackers can use an unsecured Wi-Fi connection to spread malware if you allow sharing across a network. If you allow file-sharing on networks, the hacker may place malicious software on your computer. Some innovative hackers have even managed to access the connection point itself, causing a pop-up box to appear during network setup offering an upgrade to a popular software title.  By clicking the popup you then inadvertently install the malware on your device and initiate the attack.

As increasing numbers of users have mobile devices that use mobile Wi-Fi to connect to the Internet, Internet security and related concerns are likely to increase as time goes on. But you don’t have to get wired to a desk anymore, as hackers are aware that the majority of their targets are easy targets. By following a few straightforward security tips, you should be able to keep your device safe.

Is Public Wi-Fi Safe?

is public wifi safe

You can maintain a secure home network when you’re home, such as by using a strong password, limiting devices from connecting with your network, and turning encryption on, which scrambles the data you send over the internet.  However, when you then pop to a meeting and use a coffee shop’s Wi-Fi, there’s not much you could do to safeguard the network security as you don’t own the network created in the shop.

If you cannot guarantee that the network is secure, and you log in on an unencrypted page or to a site on which encryption is used only on the sign-in page, other users can access the site and see what’s going on while you’re logged on it. They could then change your identity and access your account. New hacking tools made available online for free have made it easy even for novices.  Your personal information (or even worse your client’s personal information you may hold on them), private documents, contacts, photos, and even your login credentials are now essentially available to download.

LEARN MORE
Should I Use a Password Manager or Are They Too Risky to Use?

If you are using public Wi-Fi, the Wi-Fi providers may be gaining access to your data, even if you are not aware of it. If you install a digital certificate, companies who run the Wi-Fi network may be able to monitor your web traffic and locate encrypted data that is associated with malware.  This includes if it is a website using an HTTPS connection.

The Dangers of Using Public Wi-Fi

dangers of using public wifi

Using public Wi-Fi has several risks associated with it.  Whilst these may sound dramatic, unfortunately, these types of attacks are all too common to unsuspecting users.

Theft of Personal Information

One of the most serious risks is the theft of personal information. Personal information comes in a number of forms.

  • Login credentials.
  • Financial information.
  • Personal data.
  • Pictures.

A hacker who accesses the Internet via a public WiFi connection may have unlimited access to the information stored on your devices. Once they log onto your bank’s or credit card company’s website using their login details, for example, they would have access to your money.

Hackers can have access to your personal details on your website, and this can lead them to steal your money and tarnish your reputation. If they only obtain access to a small portion of the data you store digitally, they may still be able to intercept your communications on the Internet thereafter.

Cyber Attacks on Business

People who are travelling during the day can connect to public wireless networks to check their emails, download files, review customer information, and perform several other tasks that need a network connection.

If you have to connect to a corporate network using some type of security tool, there are still security issues when used with a wireless network.

For instance, you may not know what WiFi provider companies are tracking when you use the public WiFi link. A lot of public WiFi customers are offered at no cost, but keep in mind that there still might be a charge involved. Wi-Fi companies are tracking your activities on the public WiFi link and could be advertising your data to marketers in return.

A good way to look at it is if you’re not paying to use a service, someone else probably is.  You also cannot always assume you are connecting to a legitimate Wi-Fi service.

Man in the Middle Attacks

A common threat on public Wi-Fi networks is called a man-in-the-middle (MitM) attack.  MitM attacks are a form of eavesdropping. As data travels from your computer to a web server, vulnerabilities can serve as distractions to allow an attacker to intercept and inspect the information. Your previously private information is no longer private.

You May Be Using an Insecure Network

When at home or in a company office, the information that is sent between your computer and the wireless router will be encrypted so that only people with the proper password can read it.

Most routers are shipped from the factory with encryption turned off by default, and it must be turned on when the network is set up. If an IT professional sets up the network, it’s likely that encryption has been enabled. There is no way of knowing this has happened however when you use a public Wi-FI network, even if it’s just a local cafe Wi-Fi.

Malware and Viruses

Due to the software vulnerabilities that exist, there are also methods actors could use to get malware onto your computer without you even knowing. A software vulnerability is a security hole or weak spot in a software program or an operating system.  A hacker may exploit this weakness by discovering a vulnerability in your devices that he or she can inject your computer with malicious code.

Snooping and Sniffing

Hackers can purchase special software and devices to assist with eavesdropping on Wi-Fi networks.

This technique can be used to access virtually every online account that you possess, including your data and login credentials.

Anyone on the local area network uses the same WiFi signal you’re using with a tool called a packet analyzer or a sniffer for a period of (the) packet analysis. These tools provide the capability to view all data transmitted via (the) WiFi network, which isn’t secured or encrypted.

Compared to many tools, these may be employed for good or bad things. Packet sniffers assist network administrators in troubleshooting problems and other issues with their wireless networks, a force for good in this respect. On the other hand, they help hackers intercept and others steal valuable information, not so great for the unsuspecting Wi-Fi user enjoying a skinny latte.

LEARN MORE
Web3: The Future Internet

Malicious Hotspots

Victims can fall into the habit of connecting to what they think is a legitimate network given that its name sounds familiar. Imagine you’re staying at a hotel for a night and you want to connect to their internet to check your emails and project information.  You arrive on time and check in at the “Travel Night” hotel.

You go to the hotel lobby and you open up your computer.  You scan the local networks available and connect to “[email protected]“.

Happy with a connection you sit back, surf the net and access your online banking to transfer payments for your team’s expenses.

However, you didn’t just connect to the hotel’s Wi-Fi, but someone impersonating the network.  From the moment you connected, they’ve been able to see all your sensitive information.  They only came in for a quick drink at the bar.

The real network was called “BT-OpenZone” which the hotel provides for guests, but you were in such a rush you forgot to check.

Session Hijacking

This is a type of web hijacking that entails intercepting another individual’s connection. The attacker may install a default network that is indistinguishable from the victim’s own and customize a user theme for it.

For example, a hacker might intercept your connection to your bank’s website.  As you log in it would then falsely appear that you are using the bank’s official website.   It will look like you are logged into a secure connection to the bank, but the attacker would be able to access your entire account.

How to Stay Safe When Using Public Wifi

how to stay safe on public wifi

Despite the risks associated with public Wi-Fi, it doesn’t mean you should never use it.  There are times when we have to access the Internet to get important information.  You just need to be aware, focused and not panicked when connecting to it and accessing services on it whilst connected.

These tips will help you stay as secure as you can be and will help keep you alert and only exposed for the limited time you need to use the service.  You will no longer be a soft target.

Never Access Personal Information on Public Wi-Fi

The first thing you should never do is do anything which is personal to you on a public Wi-Fi network.  Always assume that the network you just connected to is insecure, and act accordingly.  You wouldn’t leave your front door open and let the general public walk in and out, don’t do the same on a public network.

Make Sure You Are Using Encrypted Networks and Websites

If you need to access the internet and specific websites, then make sure you only log in or send personal information via websites that are fully encrypted.   This means you need to look out for websites beginning with HTTPS and not HTTP.  This includes from the time you log in to the network and all throughout using the website (including the landing page after signing in).

If you find yourself logged into an unencrypted site, log out straight away and change your password immediately for that account.

Despite a website having HTTPS at the start, you need to remain vigilant.  Scammers know how to encrypt fraudulent websites too.  So your data will be encrypted, but it doesn’t make you secure from the scammers which are operating the website which is why you need to take extra precautions at all times.

Don’t Remain Permanently Logged In

This is something almost everyone overlooks especially when we’re so used to working from home or the office.  We very often remain logged in to our cloud services and devices.  Whilst this is fine (to some degree) when we’re at home or the office, it’s not good practice when out and about using public networks.

Always log out when you are finished – even from the public Wi-Fi network you are connected to.

Don’t Use the Same Password for Accounts

This is something you need to get into the habit of doing and why using a password manager is a good idea.  Whilst using the same username and passwords is convenient for the end user to move in and out of accounts, this is not good security practice.

If one account becomes compromised, this will make all of your other accounts compromised too.

Use Your Own Mobile Data

Nowadays you should always try to use your own mobile data as much as possible on the move, as it is usually encrypted.

You can access the Internet safely in the knowledge that it’s only you using the data (just make sure your personal hotspot is turned off).  It’s a good option if you need to access personal information.  Just make sure you have a good enough data plan and don’t waste all your data in a month streaming videos on the move.

Use a VPN (Virtual Private Network)

If you’re connecting to your company through an unsecured connection, like a Wi-Fi hot spot, a VPN connection is necessary.  It’s also good practice for personal surfing too.

A VPN (such as Express VPN) is a service that protects your Internet connection and online privacy. It adds an encrypted tunnel for your traffic and protects your online identity by masking your Internet Protocol address. It allows you to use public Wi-Fi hotspots securely.

Even if a hacker infiltrates your connection, the data that you send will be fully encrypted.  With more of us accessing services on the move, using a VPN is becoming ever more important.  Most hackers are looking for an easy target, a VPN makes that job much harder and needs much greater effort, and they will likely move on to the next target in most cases.

Use SSL Connections

If you don’t have access to or use a VPN service, then make sure you use SSL encryption enabled.

Select the “Always Use HTTPS” option on websites you visit frequently, or on pages where you need to enter certain kinds of credentials.

Hackers understand how passwords are recycled, so along with your username for some random site, it might also be the same as that of your online bank or company network, and you could be opening yourself up to a smart hacker by sending these credentials in unencrypted manners.  Most web-based applications require an account or credentials to have SSL settings enabled as standard.

Turn Off Sharing

When you connect to the Internet in a public place, it’s unwise for you to want to share any information. You can disable sharing of content via your operating system, Control Panel, or uniquely through the “Public” option each time you sign in to a brand-new, unsecured network.

Turn Off Wi-Fi When You Don’t Need It Anymore

Even if you haven’t accessed a network, the Wi-Fi hardware in your personal computer is still sending information between networks in close range.

It is implemented in Wi-Fi routers for security measures, but not all routers are the same and hackers can be modified to be pretty intelligent. If you are only working in a word processor or within a spreadsheet, then it’s advisable to turn off your Wi-Fi.  Just as when you turn your Bluetooth off, you will experience a longer battery life from the device too.

Pick the Correct Network

Just like in our example above in the hotel, always make sure you connect to the correct network.  By selecting the wrong network you could be opening yourself up to a man-in-the-middle attack.  Just because a network is offering the strongest signal doesn’t mean it’s the best network to connect to.  If you’re concerned, don’t be afraid to ask which the correct network is to a member of staff.  Always double-check that the network is secure and before connecting we always recommend switching on your VPN if you use one.

Enable Ask to Connect

You can arrange for your devices to ask for permission before connecting to a network instead of automatically connecting to the shortest unsecured network available. This is not the recommended approach. Do not automatically assume the network you previously used in one place will be as safe as one with the same name in another place.

Be Your Own Hotspot

Anyone with a larger data allowance can enjoy a hotspot of their own. Unlike public Wi-Fi, you can use your own mobile or device (with data allowance) to let others conenct to your device so they can use the internet too.  They will simply see you pop up as a Wi-Fi hotspot.

Your own private system won’t be completely secure but it’s much safer than using a public Wi-Fi network.
Take a Hotspot with You

If you don’t want to use your own device data, you could just carry your hotspot with you. You can purchase cellular modem hotspots with their own battery power and use 4G/5G connections to provide multiple people with Wi-Fi access.

This can be a great way of creating your own secure public network that you have control over and it enables you to work more freely too.  They can be costly and like your mobile data plan there will likely be a limit on how much data you can use, but they work and are more secure than public networks.  The only downside is making sure they get a signal.

Try to Avoid Using Passwords

There are dozens of passwords to remember, and you might still have to enter a few of them even if you’re on public Wi-Fi.

When you’ve been compromised, report the fact that a hacker has been sniffing the airwaves, pulling down data, and spamming online communications to you.

Use a password manager to keep yourself more secure and use biometrics where possible.  This prevents hackers from sniffing your data entry.  If biometrics is not possible, try using a virtual keyboard so that the keys aren’t logged.  They keep your password entry safe and encrypted, even on your mobile devices. Make sure that if you must use a password, it’s on a site which has 2-step verification enabled meaning you have to approve the login from another device.

Keep Your Apps and Operating System Updated

Make sure that you keep your operating system up to date (which includes Macs) at all times as well as any of the software or apps you are using on the device.  Whilst updates can be a pain, they are a necessary evil as often the updates include security patches and updates to keep you safe.  Make sure you keep yourself backed up and up to date at all times with the latest versions.

Don’t let a hacker exploit any weakness in your devices.

Summary

public wifi airport lounge

Whenever you use a public WiFi network make sure you remain vigilant of what’s going on around you and also the networks that you are accessing, especially if you are a business traveller.  When using public networks you can never be completely sure of the WiFi settings which have been enabled nor who is behind the network.

This is why you should:

  • Only connect to public networks you know and have verified – not just go by the name of the network.
  • Use and switch on a VPN when using public networks.
  • Never login to your bank account on the move (unless it’s via your own mobile network on the device).
  • Switch off Wi-Fi and Bluetooth when not in use.
  • Turn off file sharing when out of the home or office.
  • Ensure as a minimum you are using SSL and HTTPS connections.
  • Maintain strong password hygiene.
  • Log out of everything when you are finished.

If you have concerns about how data is being shared in your business on the move, then don’t hesitate to reach out to us.