Is Public WiFi Safe?

If you don’t take steps to protect yourself, you’re opening a hacker’s pandora’s box.

If you don’t take steps to protect yourself, you’re opening a hacker’s pandora’s box.

This is a common scenario:

You just passed through airport security in a major American city and park at a Starbucks near your departure gate. You take out your laptop to get some work done before boarding. Excellent, you say, looking at the list of WiFis, There’s a public network. No password required. 

You quickly click through the terms and conditions—no one reads those—and you’re now connected. You browse the internet, answer some emails, and board your flight.

A few weeks pass.

You can’t log into your Facebook account. You start getting texts about strange emails people have been receiving from you. Suddenly, you’re locked out of your email too. Even your bank password has changed. You reach out to support and they confirm that you had changed the password last week. And you recently applied for a new credit card.

But you didn’t.

You’re mystified at how quickly the digital chaos overwhelmed your life. How did it happen?

Unless you protect yourself, every time you log onto public WiFi, you leave yourself open to surveillance and hacks, which can lead to identity and data theft, financial loss, or worse. 

Use tools or change your online behavior to reduce your risk. Check out the Priiv app to learn more.

Each time you connect to a public WiFi network, there is a chance that someone will be monitoring what you do, stealing your personal information, or even infecting your computer or accounts. It could be that the WiFi itself was a trap—hackers and bad actors commonly setup WiFi networks with innocent sounding names—or the WiFi router itself is already compromised and being used by hackers. Whatever the reason, you connect to public WiFi and trouble ensues. 

Let’s take a deeper look at what can happen when you log onto a compromised WiFI network. 

Your website activity is tracked

It’s easy for anyone controlling a WiFi router to see the URLs of websites you visit, whether that’s social, email, banking, or any other kind of sites you’d want to keep private. URLs can give off a lot of information and hackers can compile profiles around you and your bank, social media accounts, services, and additional details they can use for later.

What you type into sites can be seen

The same software that displays the sites you visit on WiFi can also show what you enter on website fields. This means sensitive information like username and passwords, addresses, bank account numbers and more can be easily captured. With this much information, it doesn’t take a lot for a hacker or peeping tom or tam to get into your most important accounts, change your passwords, and start sending out emails asking your friends for money or leading them to virus-infected websites.

Install malware or ransomware on your computer

For the hacker, this is the big payoff. There are a multitude of ways to drop malicious software on your device, allowing hackers to:

  • Log your keystrokes. Meaning they can see everything you type, bypassing security measures on websites.
  • Access your device remotely. Anytime you’re connected to the internet, they’re able to access your device and all your files.
  • See your screen. If you’re visiting sites with sensitive information on it, a hacker can see that.
  • Hold your files ransom. Ransomware, an attack that’s up 77% for the first half of 2019 alone, holds all the files on your device for ‘ransom’ and only gives you access if you pay their ransom.

Given how much access a hacker has at this point, they can easily log into your bank account, obtain a new credit card in your name, or make a huge purchase that can’t be tracked. After all, you’ve given them access to your passwords, they have access to your social media so even basic security questions like ‘what’s your mother’s maiden name?’ can be answered, and personal details like addresses and social security numbers aren’t hard to find on a device or via past emails.

The safe way to public WiFi

All this risk we mentioned here doesn’t mean you have to avoid public WiFi, you just have to protect yourself. If you have a fast cellular service and free tethering, you’re better off using your own cell service to connect your laptop or tablet for a quick connection than bothering to jump on an unknown WiFi network. Why not avoid the risk altogether?

But if you’re sitting down for an hour or more of work, need to stream video or download a big file, you may want to use WiFi.

There’s a safe way to do it.

  • Use a VPN (or VPN-like product) that encrypts or, plainly speaking, hides, everything that goes in and out of your device. This makes it impossible for a compromised WiFi router to see what sites you visit, what pages you load, or what you type into forms. 
  • Make sure you’re only visiting secure websites. Web addresses that start with https are already encrypted – meaning nobody can see what you type into those pages or forms. Many common browsers have a lock icon next to URL addresses that tell you whether the site is secure or not. If there’s no lock or if it’s unlocked, know that the website is insecure.
  • Connect only to public wifi hotspots you know are legitimate. Find ones tied to your location, such as hotel or airport wifi. This is not foolproof, as good companies can have their routers compromised, and bad actors often setup WiFi using known names. If you’re in a public area and can’t recognize what a public WiFi is tied to or if it has a generic name, you’re better off avoiding it.
  • Limit what you do while you’re on public wifi. Don’t visit any of your financial accounts, and limit other personal site visits (think email, social) unless it’s absolutely necessary.

Remember, a hacker will always attack the lowest hanging fruit. In a field as large as the one a public wifi provides, if you’re taking actions and making choices that make it difficult for a hacker steal your info, they’re likely to move onto another victim with fewer safeguards in place. 

We depend on internet access. We want it fast and WiFi offers that – but since all of your data and a ton of private information is passing over that connection, you can’t just use any WiFi without thinking about protecting yourself. If you install a VPN on your mobile device, laptop and tablet, you can live worry-free. Using a VPN and following the other tips above can keep you safely connected, wherever you go.

Featured photo by Hannah Wei on Unsplash
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