Is public wifi safe? It’s a question that we’ve all asked when we’re out and about and keen to get online. Today there are increasing numbers of public wifi hotspots – in meeting spaces, hotel rooms, coffee shops, and libraries… even on trains and in supermarkets. But how can we be sure that we aren’t inadvertently setting ourselves up for a data theft attack when we go online. The question of public wifi security is worth taking seriously – and we’ll look at it in more detail here.

Why can public wifi be dangerous?

Yes, it’s often free and particularly tempting to use, but is public wifi safe? You can find the networks widely in all public places and they let you get online for free. Hotspots are so widely available and advertised, that it’s tempting to connect without thinking twice and to preserve your data. The good news is that there isn’t that much danger in everyday browsing activities, such as reading the news or searching for information online.

However, any activity that needs you to log in will bring up the question of public wifi security. If you want to use your social media accounts, check your emails, log into your bank or carry out transactions of any kind, you could potentially place yourself in danger.

What are the threats of using Public wifi?

The fact is, public wifi security is nothing like the security you enjoy from an office or even your home on a private connection. It is certainly nothing like the security and peace of mind you will experience when adding an extra safety layer with a VPN. Yes, it tends to be free – but you can open yourself up to cybercrime data attacks when you choose to use these networks without understanding the risks.

When considering public wifi security, Android and iOS systems alike offer a degree of protection, but cybercriminals are smart and motivated. Public wifi security Android and iOS should be considered as your first layer of protection and further bolstered with the addition of a secure, anonymized and encrypted service, such as a Virtual Private Network or VPN. Let’s look at the common threats of using Public wifi.

5 public wifi security threats to know

Man in the middle attacks

These MitM attacks are one of the most typical public wifi security threats and you can think of them as digital eavesdropping. When your device connects to the internet, data transfers to your website of choice. This transfer represents a security vulnerability, where a cybercriminal can access your data transmissions and “read” the content using snooping software. Suddenly your online activities are no longer private and you could be at risk of data theft and identity theft.

Malware distribution

Attackers can also add malware programs onto your device without you even being aware that it is happening. This occurs through security weaknesses or holes that are found on software programs or operating systems. Yes, this means that inbuilt and default wifi security Android and iOS systems are not always sufficient on their own to keep you safe. Hackers code to attack known vulnerabilities and then send the malware to wreak havoc on your device.

Recommended read: What is malware and ow to protect against it

Unencrypted networks

Encryption scrambles messages that transfer between your device and the router, coding it so that a hacker cannot read the content without the necessary key. Routers tend to be factory shipped without any encryption and the business owners that install them tend not to realize that the encryption feature must be manually switched on when the network is being set up for the first time. If the public wifi has been installed by an IT professional, there is a far better chance that the encryption has been installed correctly. Remember though, there is no guaranteed way to know this, so you’ll be putting yourself in danger if you do carry out sensitive online activities using the public wifi network and just leave it to chance!

Malicious hotspots

Sometimes you may think that you are logging onto a legitimate Public wifi network because it has a name that sounds “right” and reputable. For example, it might look like the name of the hotel you are staying at or the restaurant where you are eating. But hackers often set up “rogue” public wifi access points that suggest names that “could” be right – but aren’t. All of a sudden, you will actually be connecting to a fake hotspot and your data will be at risk from cybercriminals.

Wifi sniffing and snooping

As it sounds, this type of public wifi security breach is where cybercriminals invest in devices and software kits that allow them to eavesdrop and snoop onto public wifi signals. By doing this, those with a mind to carry out malicious attacks can access every single thing you might be doing online. This includes seeing web pages that you have visited, forms that you have completed, sites that you have logged into – including your log-in details – and your social media accounts. They can then hijack your accounts. It’s a frightening thought, but also very real for people who fall prey to these attacks.

How can you stay safe when using Public wifi?

Use a VPN

When using a VPN, public wifi can suddenly become a safe experience. The Virtual Private Network, or VPN, is a secure network that does several things.

  1. It hides your identity online
  2. It allows you to operate online without being detected
  3. It routes your data through another server to anonymize it
  4. It encrypts your data to prevent it from being readable by a hacker.

If you choose to use a VPN, public wifi services can be used safely. There is a range of VPN services on offer and we have covered them in detail in our other blogs.

Other measures to follow to use public wifi securely

Make sure you

  1. Disable any type of file sharing
  2. Only visit websites that use HTTPS
  3. Log out of your accounts after using them
  4. Ensure your wifi settings always “forget” networks rather than allowing automatic connection
  5. Use your VPN to ensure that all public wifi connections are encrypted and anonymized so that your connections are tunneled away behind a secure layer and remain private.

In addition, never:

  1. Log into accounts via apps that have private data. Go directly to the website to ensure that the HTTPS security layer is in place
  2. Leave your Bluetooth or wifi enabled once you have finished
  3. Use Public wifi to access sensitive accounts or websites that contain private data about you
  4. Log in to any kind of network or account without password protection (and in the case of financial institutions, a two-stage authentication process.)

In conclusion

Public wifi security issues mean that the appeal of a free and instant connection on the go must be weighed up carefully! Follow the steps above to stay safe when logging in on the go, and stay one step ahead of cybercriminals.