Lady using public wifi on cellphone

VirtualArmour Team

September 8, 2021

The Risks of Public WiFi (& How to Protect Yourself)

In a constantly connected world, free WiFi can seem like an oasis in the desert, allowing you to ration your data and safeguarding you from eye-watering overage fees.

Unfortunately, public WiFi is inherently less safe than personal, private networks such as your home internet or the office network. 

Public WiFi Leaves You Vulnerable 

Public WiFi is inherently risky: after all, you have no idea who else is on this network and what they are up to. While businesses such as stores and organizations like your municipality or public library may think they are offering a helpful public service or a valued customer perk, you can’t be sure that they take security as seriously as you do. 

Person using public wifi securely

Common Public WiFi Cyberattacks

If you are the victim of a cyberattack, please contact our team immediately and consider reading our educational article Hacked? Here’s What to Know (& What to Do Next).

Man-in-the-Middle Attacks

Man-in-the-Middle (MitM) attacks are one of the most common public WiFi cyberattacks and are, at their core, a form of digital eavesdropping. Essentially, when a device such as your phone, tablet, or laptop connects to the internet via a public WiFi network, data is sent between point A (your device) and point B (the website you are visiting or the server that hosts the app you are using). Man-in-the-Middle attacks allow cybercriminals to camp out between these two points and intercept your traffic, which they can then either read or manipulate. 

Man-in-the-Middle attacks take a number of forms, including interfering with legitimate networks, creating fake networks that the attacker controls, or rerouting internet traffic to phishing or other malicious sites. Compromised traffic is stripped of any encryption protections, which allows the attacker to steal information or change the information you are transmitting. 

Attackers don’t want you to realize they are manipulating your traffic, so it can be difficult to realize an attack has occurred until you discover your email address is being used to send spam, your bank account is empty, or you uncover other evidence of nefarious activity. As such, users must take steps to avoid falling victim to these attacks. 

While using multi-factor authentication can make it more difficult for attackers to gain unauthorized access to your accounts, your username and password can still be compromised. As such, if you absolutely cannot wait to log in to your bank account or conduct other sensitive business, opting for a cellular connection or using your phone as a personal hotspot for your laptop is a better option.

Malware & Malicious Hotspots

While most developers do their best to ensure the programs they create are secure, sometimes mistakes happen, and programs, apps, and websites can inadvertently be left with security holes or other weaknesses. Attackers use these vulnerabilities to sneak malware (malicious software) onto your device. 

Another common technique involves setting up fake hotspots full of malware and making them look like legitimate networks; an attack sometimes referred to as a honeypot. These networks usually adopt reputable names in order to trick victims into connecting. 

For example, let’s say you decide to visit a coffee shop called Kim’s Cafe. You open your phone and, without thinking, select the “Kim’s Cafe” WiFi network. How do you know that network is actually owned by Kim’s Cafe? While some businesses that offer complementary public WiFi post the network name prominently (to help ensure visitors aren’t connecting to suspicious networks), not all businesses do. You can ask a staff member for the name and password for the guest network, but that doesn’t guarantee their network is secure. When in doubt, go without or use your cellular data, don’t just select a network that appears legitimate and hope for the best. 

Person using phone and laptop on public wifi

Tips for Staying Safe on Public WiFi

When it comes to public WiFi, caution is the name of the game. The best way to stay safe on a public WiFi network is to not use the public WiFi network. However, we also understand that this can be easier said than done. 

If you do have to use public WiFi, you should start by asking yourself a single question: If someone was reading over my shoulder right now, how would I feel about it? If the thought of some stranger reading your screen makes you anxious or angry, you should probably hold off until you can connect to a secure network. 

To help you get started, here are links to guides on how to manage your security settings on these commonly used web browsers:

Leave Your PII At Home

If you need to use public WiFi, limit your activities as much as possible and avoid visiting any sites or using Apps that involve handing over your personally identifying information (PII), such as banking details, usernames, and passwords, or medical information. You wouldn’t carry a sign around with your personal information splashed all over it, so why would you risk revealing this highly sensitive data on a public WiFi network?

If you have to use a public network, stay clear of apps and websites that require you to log in. Some websites and apps require you to enter things like your full name, phone number, and other identifying information when you create an account, so even if you don’t remember providing that information when you registered, you may inadvertently be exposing that information if an attacker intercepts your internet traffic. 

Consider a VPN

If you spend a lot of time away from your desk and absolutely need to stay connected (say you are traveling for work and don’t have unlimited data), you might want to consider a VPN. A VPN allows you to create a secure connection between your device and another network (such as your work network) over the internet, shielding your browsing activity and keeping you off of public WiFi networks. 

To help safeguard sensitive company data and other digital assets, many employers provide their employees with VPNs to ensure they are always using a secure connection while accessing company data. After all, you have no idea if your employee’s home network, local cafe WiFi, or complimentary hotel network meet your security standards. 

No VPN? Look for the Lock

If you don’t have a VPN, there are still steps you can take to help safeguard your data while using public WiFi. SSL connections add a layer of encryption to your network traffic, which can help keep you safe on public WiFi. When using the internet, make sure you enable the “Always Use HTTPS” option on your browser or any websites you frequently visit that require you to enter any credentials and never enter credentials into unsecured websites. 

Disable AirDrop & File Sharing

If you absolutely have to use a public WiFi network, you should turn off any features on your device that enable frictionless file sharing.

Learn how to manage your file-sharing settings on Windows 10 and on a Mac.

Leave WiFi & Bluetooth Turned Off

Leaving your WiFi and Bluetooth settings turned off when not in use can help prevent your device from connecting to unknown networks or other devices without your explicit consent. 

Actually Read the Terms & Conditions

We know that no one actually likes wading through pages of dry technical text, but before you connect to any public WiFi network, make sure you know what you are signing up for. Look for information on what data the network collects, how it is used, and how it is stored, and keep an eye out for any red flags before you click the Accept button. 

Avoid Nosey Networks

Be wary of any public WiFi networks that require you to enter personal information, such as your email address or phone number. If you absolutely have to connect to a network that requires a lot of personal information, make sure you trust the organization that owns the network and consider creating a separate email account specifically for situations like this. 

While asking for some personal information doesn’t automatically mean that the network owner is untrustworthy, stores and restaurants in particular tend to gather this information so they can better track you across multiple WiFi hotspots and tailor their marketing efforts, not to improve security or benefit users. As such, it is up to you to decide if you are willing to give up your private information in exchange for some free WiFi. 

Find Out if Your Cable or Cell Phone Company Offers Complimentary Public WiFi

Some cell phone providers and cable companies manage complimentary WiFi hotspots for their customers, so if you spend a lot of time searching for free WiFi you may want to see if your service provider offers this perk. If you are connecting to free public WiFi through a service you are already signed up for, then you don’t have to hand over any more personal information than you already have. 

Log Out When You Are Finished (Even At Home)

Logging out of all your accounts when you are done may seem like a pain, but it can help safeguard your personal data when your device leaves your home or office. By logging out when you are finished, you can rest assured that you aren’t inadvertently exposing your sensitive data when you grab a coffee or head to the mall.

Look for Password Protected Networks

When it comes to public WiFi networks, passwords are your friend. While adding a password won’t guarantee airtight security, it does help limit who has access to the network and for how long (assuming the organization that owns the network rotates their password frequently). This bare minimum level of security does help, but you should still avoid visiting websites or using apps that contain sensitive information such as PII or private work files. 

Invest in an Unlimited Data Plan

At the end of the day, the best way to stay safe on public WiFi is simply to avoid connecting to public WiFi networks in the first place. If you anticipate having to do a lot of browsing away from your home or work network, you may want to consider investing in an unlimited data plan.

Though the best course of action is to avoid public WiFi networks altogether, there are steps you can take to safeguard your device and personal data if you need to connect. For more information on keeping yourself, your business, or your remote employees safe, please contact our team today.

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