It's so tempting sometimes to save on data by hooking up to free public wifi… but far too often there's a price to be paid. Checking your bank balance or catching up on social media on public wifi can end up costing you more than what you'd otherwise be saving on data charges – much more. Unless you're using a VPN, public wifi can be risky, if not downright dangerous.

VPN? That's short for Virtual Private Network, and if you find yourself having to use public wifi, a VPN could just be a lifesaver.

The Dangers of Public WiFi

So what's so dangerous about public wifi, anyway? These days businesses and coffee shops attract customers by offering free wifi. 

Put simply, that free wifi is an investment, and it's quite possible that the owner will have saved money by not making another, essential investment – in network security. 

Maybe we're being unfair to some coffee shops and businesses, but if we assume they've not invested in security for their wifi service we're always going to be safe, not sorry.

That's because it's all too simple for hackers to intercept traffic between your phone or laptop and the wifi connection point, and access your email accounts, contacts, financial details… and so much more.

And to show just how simple, the Santander bank ran an experiment.  Using information anyone can access online, they watched as Alec Daniels hacked into a public wifi network.  

Alec then set up what's known as a “man in the middle” attack, which allowed him to eavesdrop on all the traffic going to and from that wifi access point.

It took him just 3 minutes and 40 seconds – and you've got to admit that's not bad, considering Alec was 86 years old at the time, with practically no prior computer knowledge.

And if Alec could hack into a public wifi system that easily, so can anyone else. Frightening, isn't it?

Other Public WiFi Dangers

Another tactic, similar to Alec's “man in the middle”, is known as the “evil twin”.  This intercepts traffic via a faked access point – which could even be just a smartphone. That faked access point would have the same name (or very similar) as a genuine public wifi hotspot nearby. 

So if people don't take care, they could be accessing the web via an “evil twin”, which would siphon off the kind of personal and financial information that's best kept private.

Then there's “packet sniffing”, which is basically gathering data going through a wifi connection, storing it and then leisurely looking through later it for passwords and other useful personal information.  Hackers do this with free software available online for analyzing web traffic, which enables them to read all kinds of unencrypted data.  

And since so many public wifi networks don't go as far as encrypting the data they handle, well… need we say more?

“Sidehacking” is very much like packet sniffing, but rather than taking away the data they've “sniffed”, and working on it at leisure, hackers work on it there and then, either by hijacking the whole session or downloading malware to obtain passwords and other information.

It's Not Just Criminals After Your Information

And even if a public wifi system is proven to be safe and secure, if it's free it can still come at a price.

For example, the bus system in Sydney, Australia may have offered free wifi to their passengers, but those passengers were still paying for it. Their personal information, including “name, address, date of birth, location details, driver's license details, photographs, videos, credit card details, employer and other details” was collected via that wifi link, and sold on to “other businesses”.

Using a VPN for Public WiFi Safety

No matter how anyone from hackers to bus companies get access to your phone or computer, there's no telling what damage you could suffer.

It might not necessarily be right away, but sometimes further down the line when you don't even remember having used public wifi. A VPN, though, can minimize the risk of any kind of damage, and here's how to use VPN for public WiFi.

What's the Best VPN for Public WiFi Use?

We've looked at many of the VPNs on offer, and although most of them are pretty good for public wifi the VPN we recommend is Surfshark, and here's why:

  • Connection to an unlimited number of devices – unlike other VPNs Surfshark isn't limited to a set number of devices, so you can set it up on as many as you like – on whatever platform they use, and that includes game consoles and smart TVs
  • Total security – governments and the banking industry use AES-256 encryption because it's impossible to break … and so does Surfshark
  • Proper 24/7 support – many VPN support services communicate via messaging and email, while Surfshark provides instant live, chat-based support for any issues you might have
  • Starting at $1.99/month, that's a small price to pay for peace of mind when you've got no choice but to use public wifi – for whatever reason

So, What Does a VPN Do?

A VPN encrypts your data so it can't be “sniffed” while keeping your computer or phone's unique identifier (its IP address) hidden. So that means browsing via public wifi, although still not really recommended, is considerably safer with a VPN than without.

It also prevents your internet service provider from seeing which websites you're visiting, because all your online activity is going through the VPN's server network – and in many cases, that network is spread throughout the world.

As well as that, a VPN can give websites the impression that you're where you need to be to access them. For example, US Netflix is unavailable in the UAE, but it's possible to fool Netflix into thinking you're in America simply by routing your access via a VPN server based in the US.

Mark Coulman
About Mark Coulman

Cybersecurity expert with a keen interest in technology and digital privacy. Mark has more than 14 years of experience in creating and managing various reliable WEB applications for IT companies in the EU and the US. Loves 3-4 letter words like PHP, XML, HTML, CSS, DB2, ASP, CRM, ERP, SAP, etc.