There's no denying that free public Wi-Fi networks are a source of convenience for many people nowadays. Accessing the Internet in public spaces such as airports and coffee shops is a godsend for many people with limited mobile data plans.
However, this convenience comes at a cost, particularly regarding data security.
In this guide, we get into the details of the risks associated with public Wi-Fi networks. More importantly, we'll share some insights on how you can effectively mitigate these risks and use public Wi-Fi in relative safety.
Table of Contents
- Is public Wi-Fi safe?
- Public Wi-Fi Security 101
Is public Wi-Fi safe?
Let's kick off this guide by addressing the main question people have in mind regarding public Wi-Fi networks — are they safe? Well, unfortunately, the short answer is no. It's actually the worst network to be on if you're concerned about digital security.
image source: Forbes
Consider that 4 out of 10 people who use public Wi-Fi have had their personal information stolen without even realizing it. Note that this is a conservative estimate and the actual ratio is likely much higher. There is a reason it's a favorite hunting ground for cybercriminals.
But what's the reason behind said unsecured Wi-Fi risks? Well, it has everything to do with how these networks operate.
Unlike private networks, there are no passwords or verification required to use public Wi-Fi. The unsecured nature of these networks makes it all too easy for cybercriminals to tap in and steal any sensitive information they come across from users unaware of the threat.
What are the specific dangers of public Wi-Fi?
In this section, we'll go over some of the most common threats that cybercriminals can implement to steal sensitive information over public Wi-Fi:
- Man-in-the-Middle attacks: Hackers take over the unsecured network and put themselves between the user and the public network. That way, they can intercept the data flow as it passes between the user's device and the public Wi-Fi network.
- Malware injection: As the name implies, cybercriminals use the public Wi-Fi network as a distribution tool for malware.
- Network snooping/sniffing: Cybercriminals use specialized software to tap into a public Wi-Fi network and collect any sensitive information transmitted by users.
- Fake hotspots: Hackers set up fake public Wi-Fi networks that appear legitimate to users while actively stealing sensitive information in the background.
Notice how these attacks can be carried out simultaneously and not necessarily limited to exploiting one weakness inherent in public Wi-Fi networks? The more you know about these public Wi-Fi security risks, the better your chances of protecting yourself and taking preventive measures.
Public Wi-Fi Security 101
One question remains — how do you keep yourself safe on public Wi-Fi networks? The good news is that there's actually plenty of things that you can do so that you don't fall prey to the dangers that may lurk in these unsecured networks.
Let's start with the basics:
Avoid using public Wi-Fi as much as possible. Now, that might not seem like a solution. Now that you know the dangers, you might as well not put yourself in that position, if you have any alternative at all.
Definitely don't transmit any sensitive information. If you must use public Wi-Fi, then at least limit yourself to activities such as casual web browsing, checking social media feeds or responding to messages from family or friends. Avoid logging into your bank account, making purchases or anything that cybercriminals might use for their own benefit.
image source: allaboutcookies
Enable network firewall on your device. Most computers and smartphones these days have integrated network firewalls that help defend against network intrusions. So ensure that feature is turned on before connecting to public Wi-Fi.
Check and verify: Be mindful of your surroundings and check whether or not the public Wi-Fi network is legitimate before connecting to it. For example, if you're in a coffee shop, you can ask one of the staff to confirm that the public Wi-Fi is operated by the establishment.
Using a VPN on public Wi-Fi
Of course, if you're the type who uses public Wi-Fi a lot, then you should consider a more advanced solution for securing your connection. We're talking about VPNs (Virtual Private Networks); using one will take your public Wi-Fi security to a whole new level.
But how exactly does a VPN do that? Well, perhaps the simplest way to describe it is that a VPN encrypts your data and creates a private tunnel for it as it's transmitted over public Wi-Fi.
For many premium VPNs, that encryption is not your typical DES (Data Encryption Standard), but AES-256 (Advanced Encryption Standard) which is the same level of data encryption used by banks and government institutions.
And the best part is that it's actually very easy these days to start using a VPN, thereby adding a significant extra layer of security to your online activities. Take ClearVPN for example — a fast and user-friendly premium VPN service with a proven track record for keeping its users safe on public Wi-Fi.
For new users, you need only download and install the ClearVPN app on your device. After you run the VPN app, you'll find the smart connection shortcut which you can activate with just once click/tap.
In addition, you can use ClearVPN for free (with limitations) on most computers (Windows or macOS) as well as mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets (iOS and Android).
Of course, plenty of other VPNs are out there, but remember that they don't all work as well as we've described here. In fact, many VPNs don't protect your data at all, and do the exact opposite by collecting user information and selling them to third parties. This is mostly true for VPNs that are advertised as completely free to use.
As the saying goes — if you're not paying for a product, then you're the product! So if your concern is protecting yourself against public Wi-Fi risks, it's best to stick with a premium VPN that offers the proper service.
What is the risk of using public Wi-Fi?
Public Wi-Fi is unsecured so using it does come with various risks. This includes malware injections, man-in-the-middle attacks, network snooping, and the like. These attacks are implemented differently but all have the same goal which is to extract sensitive information from unsuspecting users.
What should you not do on public Wi-Fi?
Any activity that requires users to transmit sensitive information is strongly discouraged when using public Wi-Fi. This includes banking accounts, emails and social network accounts which are exactly the type of information hackers look for when stalking these unsecured networks.
How safe is an iPhone on public Wi-Fi?
The dangers of public Wi-Fi revolve around the interception of sensitive data when using these networks. While iPhones definitely have a reputation of being safe, users still need to be cautious about what information they're sending out when using public Wi-Fi.