A virtual private network is often the best way to guarantee privacy online, but does a VPN protect you on public Wi-Fi? The simple answer is yes — if you sign up to the right service.

With so many new laws and regulations coming through all the time, it’s hard to escape the issue of Internet privacy. What you do online is data. The things you buy, the products you browse and the entertainment you indulge in tell Internet service providers and marketing companies how to market products and services to you.

Now, you might be relaxed about all of this. You might even find targeted ads useful. But can you trust large corporations with your personal information? Are you OK with them selling that information for a profit? And what happens if your personal online data falls into the hands of fraudsters? These are all issues that warrant concern when you’re browsing at home — but the issue becomes even more pressing when you’re out and about.

At home, you can take the necessary measures to protect your Internet network from snoopers and hackers. You can use a VPN client, for instance. Or a Tor client may be the way to go. But what about public Wi-Fi? Is your personal data and browsing history protected in coffee shops, airports and train stations?

Why is public Wi-Fi often insecure?

Put simply: hackers and fraudsters love public Wi-Fi, as it’s relatively easy to hack into and it’s accessed by thousands of potential crime victims every day. Whether you’re buying clothes on your smartphone or a vacation on your tablet, it’s always a good idea to protect your data when you’re using public Wi-Fi hotspots.

A lot of public Wi-Fi hotspots are open, which means they can be used by anyone — without an account or a password. While this is a convenient way to get online while you’re out and about, it can spell disaster for your personal data. If you’re ever on an open public network, you can be pretty sure that criminals are too… and they could be stealing your data under your nose.

Hackers and fraudsters take advantage of public Wi-Fi in a number of ways, including:

Snooping

Hackers use increasingly sophisticated tools to snoop on what you’re doing online. Using a packet analyzer, for example, a hacker can collect many of your personal details, including credit card numbers and passwords.

Malware

Malware is used for everything from data theft to malicious advertising. Loading it into unsecured networks is easier than most people imagine. And once it’s there, it can be transferred to individual devices with ease. Hackers can even use downloading tools to download all of the files on your phone — including photos, text messages and emails.

Fake Wi-Fi

Fake Wi-Fi hotspots are designed to look like the real thing. People think they are using a respectable service, but they’re actually allowing hackers to access their devices with very little effort.

Man in the middle attacks

Man in the middle attacks involve intercepting communications in an attempt to impersonate a server or website. The user may click a link, and rather than being sent to the real website, they’re transferred to a fraudulent one. From there, criminals can harvest a huge amount of data — including passwords.

What data is stolen on public Wi-Fi?

Unfortunately, criminals find value in just about any type of data on a person’s device. Some will use personal details about you to steal your identity. From there, they can apply for loans and various credit lines in your name — leaving you saddled with debt.

Some criminals steal photos and messages in order to extort people, while others simply want to steal credit card information and use it to make online purchases.

The information you need to protect while you’re on public Wi-Fi includes:

  • Your browsing history
  • Your geographical location
  • Photos
  • Text messages
  • Login details and passwords
  • Personal details about you that can be used to clone your identity
  • Emails

Whether you’re on a public bus or waiting to catch a flight, it’s important to take responsibility for your own data. Wi-Fi providers will often get you to tick a box to their terms and conditions — one of which is usually an acceptance that privacy and data are your responsibilities. Moreover, you may actually be giving the ISP permission to harvest your browsing data. This is now a lucrative revenue stream for these companies, and they go to extraordinary lengths to exploit it.

While there are several ways to protect your data on public Wi-Fi networks, a VPN is one of the most effective.

How to Stay Safe on Public Wi-Fi

Does a VPN protect you on public Wi-Fi? Well, yes, but you need to have it set up right — by a respected provider. This is a very serious business, so you need to know that your data is protected by a robust and reliable VPN client. Using VPN on public Wi-Fi is always the most effective solution.

A VPN will provide unrivaled protection for your data by encrypting it at source. So, before you connect to that free hotspot, you already know that any data harvested from your device will be pretty much useless to the average criminal. But VPN on public Wi-Fi also makes you invisible. The ISP provider will never know which websites you visited, or how you spent your time online.

When you sign up to a VPN service, all of your activity is routed to a separate and wholly private network. So rather than accessing the hotspot directly, the VPN is doing it for you. As long as you connect to the service before you start browsing, you’re protected — wherever you are in the world.

A VPN guarantees privacy and data protection at the same time. Not only is your data unreadable, it’s invisible. Whether you need to login to your bank account or pay some bills with a credit card, you can do so in the knowledge that no one is snooping. Connection to a VPN takes seconds, and doesn’t interfere with the browsing process in any way.

Using VPN on public Wi-Fi is a quick and simple process. In most cases, the client is loaded onto a device via an app. Simply click and follow the connection instructions, which usually takes just a few seconds. When you’re successfully connected to the VPN, you’ll see the relevant icon at the top of the screen. Similarly, you’ll see a warning icon when you’re not. You may have to adjust your devices settings before you use the VPN for the first time.

How to stay safe on public Wi-Fi without a VPN

Whether you want to maximize security for your own peace of mind or you don’t have access to a VPN service just yet, there are other things you can do to protect your data on public Wi-Fi. For example, you can ensure all of the sharing settings on your device are switched off. If they’re not, people sharing the network may be able to access the data on your phone with ease.

If you don’t have a VPN, you can stay relatively safe by only visiting sites with the HTTPS prefix. This guarantees that the connection between your device and the website is completely private. Other possible steps you can take include using two-factor authentication for logins and activating a firewall.

As effective as these extra measures are, nothing comes close to the protection delivered by VPN on public Wi-Fi.

Criminal gangs and international crime syndicates are actively targeting public Wi-Fi because it’s so lucrative. With few or no security measures in place, even the greenest of hackers can access the personal data of individual users with relative ease. Why take chances with your money, your identity and your privacy? Sign up to a VPN service for your mobile devices, and use public Wi-Fi with complete confidence.