It wouldn’t be much of an exaggeration to say that Wi-Fi’s become one of life’s basic necessities—in fact, you’re probably reading this article logged onto a Wi-Fi network! Earlier, getting on to the internet was possible only while sitting on your couch—there was a secure network that was (hopefully!) paid for that folks could connect to.
Well, it isn’t the 90s anymore and mankind (and internet availability) has progressed by leaps and bounds—Wi-Fi’s gone public, available in a range of spots from shopping malls to hotels you stay in, to the airport to your local corner cafe.
Using public Wi-Fi can be a real temptation—especially, for example, when those deadlines are closing in and you have a couple of hours till your next flight. Additionally, you’re saving some major bytes on your phone’s internet plan, aren’t you? Well, it isn’t as simple as that.
Every spot that has a “free public Wi-Fi” sign on the wall also has a host of lurking hackers, waiting to steal as much personal information as possible from the clueless folks logged into the network. So, really, using public Wi-Fi is evidently not too safe, either.
However, you don’t have to give up the convenience of using public Wi-Fi to avoid hackers—all it takes is a few safety precautions to fly well below their radars. Here’s a low-down on everything you need to stay safe on public Wi-Fi!
Secured Vs Unsecured Networks
An important piece of knowledge that internet users should have is what comprises secured and unsecured Wi-Fi networks. Generally, all public Wi-Fi should be treated as unsecured, as you don’t know who or how many people, apart from the owner, have the password, making it quite difficult for normal folks to know who else is using the network.
Here’s a more detailed explanation:
- Secured Wi-Fi: Also known as “semi-open Wi-Fi”, secured Wi-Fi networks require a password, the acceptance of certain terms and conditions (generally via a box that you need to tick) and sometimes, even purchasing from the Wi-Fi provider (such as a cafe or business) to be able to access the network.
- Unsecured Wi-Fi: Unsecured or “open” Wi-Fi doesn’t require a password and is open to anyone who wishes to use it (generally without a limit on the usage), provided they’re within the router’s range.
How Can Hackers Harm You Through Public Wi-Fi?
To solve a problem, you first need to understand it, so here’s a 101 on the methods hackers employ to harm users of public Wi-Fi:
- Using the Same Network: One of the simplest ways a hacker can get to you is by using the same network as you (or you’re using the same network as the hacker). By using the same network, they can see all that you’re doing online, from the passwords you’re typing in, to the sites you’re surfing, to any personal information you share. With this information, hackers can cause quite a bit of damage, such as siphoning money from your bank account or creating fake accounts using your details to commit other fraudulent acts.
- Sending Fake Alerts/Upgrades: That alert you receive on your system telling you that there’s a system upgrade available? Yeah, that could very well be the work of a hacker. Clicking on these fake upgrade alerts will leave you with a virus instead of updated software.
- Fake Hotspots: Who isn’t lured by free Wi-Fi? Like bees to honey, most of us are guilty of jumping on an open Wi-Fi network! Sadly, not all Wi-Fi networks are genuine; some could be fake networks created by hackers to trap unsuspecting users. The price you’ll pay? The hackers are in complete control and can see all your online activity.
- Sharing Files: The use of file-sharing networks, such as ShareIt and AirDrop, is another commonly-used method that hackers employ to infect systems with viruses and malware; these can tear through your system’s (fire)walls and create openings for hackers to enter.
Tips to Stay Safe on Public Wi-Fi
You know what they say about prevention and cure—now that you know how hackers can get to you, here are a few tips to stay safe on public Wi-Fi:
- Use Protection: Okay, so this one might sound like a little bit of a no brainer (in life, too), but one of the most effective ways to keep out the virus is to install effective antivirus software and firewalls. These guys warn you of any potentially harmful sites or files and keep the hackers out of your system. Ensure that you always keep your security software up to date for the strongest possible protection.
- Don’t Fall for Every Network: Just because it’s there, doesn’t mean you have to take/use it. Choose Wi-Fi networks that are secure and limited to as few users as possible. Networks provided by reputed brands or in reputed stores/cafes, those that are associated with small-square-footage businesses and those that require passwords are good options, as these are generally tighter (simply because there’s too much at stake). Limiting the number of open networks you use will also, of course, keep you safe.
- Turn Off All Auto-Connection: Not only does turning off auto-connection (Bluetooth, AirDrop, file sharing, printer sharing and so on) on all your devices protect against hackers, but it also saves your device’s battery life.
- Try to Stay off Downloads and Installations: Avoid installing or downloading on public Wi-Fi, especially from pop ups that ask you to install or download something to be able to use the network. As mentioned before, avoid any updates or system upgrades on public Wi-Fi networks. Keep your system up to date so that you don’t fall for any unnecessary alerts and upgrades.
- HTTPS Padlock: Ever noticed the little “s” after the “http”, and the tiny padlock to the left, on some sites? Turns out that the “s” stands for “secure”; along with the padlock symbol, this indicates that the site uses encryption to protect the data sent to the site’s server—in common language, the site is very secure and definitely more than a normal “http” site!
- Don’t Give away Personal Information: Don’t input your personal data on any site when on public Wi-Fi, even if it’s an “https” site—it’s just not worth the risk. This also means staying away from online shopping and initiating banking transactions while on public Wi-Fi.
- To “Forget” Is Good: After you’re done using a public network, always use the “forget network” option on your system; this prevents any automatic connection that your device could do the next time you’re around the same network.
- Consider Other Alternatives: Consider safer alternatives such as use an unlimited data plan on your smartphone, or use the free hotspots that your network provider offers in various public spots. Using your smartphone to provide you with a hotspot for your internet needs is a great option—it’s private and secure and can be used with any internet-enabled device.
- Use Two-Factor Authentication: Two-factor authentication means that to log in to a particular account, you’ll be required to provide a password as well as an additional factor, such as an OTP, answering a security question or verifying the link via email. This is a pretty effective measure to keep out the hackers.
- Consider Using a Virtual Private Network: VPNs, as they’re known in short, route all your online activity through an encrypted, secure server, which means you can surf the net anonymously. Try to opt for a paid VPN service; they’re really not all that expensive but the protection and reliability they provide are quite priceless!
- Read the Fine Print: That means knowing what exactly you’re agreeing to when you tick that box saying you accept all terms and conditions. Of course, some of it may go over your head but you may also be able to identify and red flags, any cookies or data collection the site is doing and where it’s going. Sure, these terms and conditions are as much for the network provider’s safety as it is for yours, but try not to blind click “accept” on every pop up with terms on it. And as mentioned earlier, anything that asks you to install software or extensions—stay away!
Hopefully, this article has helped you figure out how to navigate safely through the jungle that Wi-Fi networks create! Understanding digital security and prioritizing is important, preventing you and your family/friends/dear ones from becoming victims of cybercrime, data thefts, identity impersonation and so on.
There’s a variety of software out there that can keep you safe; the HTTPS Everywhere browser extension, for example, automatically directs you to the “https” version of websites, while those such as WiFox give you a map of all the free public Wi-Fi spots and their passwords from all across the world!
Where possible, try to use your phone’s network or hotspot; where you absolutely must use public Wi-Fi, do so keeping the above in mind. They’re simple tips that hardly take much time, effort or money to implement—in return, you get a world of safety and security.
Lorenzo has been using the internet for as long as he can remember. He was there for the early days of message boards, he watched social media take over, and he’s excited to see what comes next.