Taking your laptop to a local coffee shop to get some work done might seem like a great idea. It’s a change of scene, you can enjoy a hot drink while you work, and there’s free Wi-Fi. Notice anything wrong with this picture? Hint: it’s the bit where you expose your private data to hackers and cybercriminals.
Public Wi-Fi just can’t be trusted. But why is it so dangerous? And what can you do to protect yourself when using it?
Why do people use public Wi-Fi?
When we talk about public Wi-Fi, we’re referring to networks available in public places, like trains, cafes, and supermarkets. Many cities are even rolling out free coverage in their town centers, helping citizens stay connected wherever they go.
On the surface, that sounds great. Public Wi-Fi can be incredibly convenient when you’re on the move. If you run out of mobile data or it stops working for some reason, you’ll probably go looking for the nearest Wi-Fi hotspot.
The bad news is public Wi-Fi is pretty convenient for hackers too.
Public Wi-Fi: a hacker’s paradise
Public Wi-Fi is a haven for thieves, hackers, and other cybercriminals. Using a variety of nefarious techniques, they can exploit public Wi-Fi to steal your passwords, personal data, and payment details. Here are just a few of the dangers associated with these methods:
One of the biggest problems with public Wi-Fi is that we can never be sure where the router is or who set it up. Did you just log in to your favorite cafe’s internet, or are you connected to a hacker’s hotspot?
There’s a growing threat in busy cities and public transport of hackers using clever disguises to set up malicious hotspots. They’ll often mask themselves using the name of a legitimate business. It could be the brand of a popular coffee shop, for example, or the train company you’re traveling with. Once you connect, however, all your data will travel through the hacker’s system, exposed and vulnerable to exploitation.
Wi-Fi snooping takes many forms, but it usually involves a hacker accessing your Wi-Fi and then spying on your data. Of course, they could use malicious hotspots, but they can also take advantage of security vulnerabilities in public Wi-Fi.
When you connect to the internet in a cafe, you don’t know whether or not they’re using up-to-date security measures. If they’re not, a cybercriminal could already have access to their router.
In a man-in-the-middle attack, a hacker accesses the connection between your device and a legitimate server. As the name suggests, they can then squat between you and wherever you’re sending your data and use that position to their advantage. That could involve stealing password information or even sneaking their own data-packets into the connection to redirect you to a new page.
For example, imagine you’re using unsecured public Wi-Fi to log in to Facebook. A hacker could redirect you to a fake Facebook login page. Once there, you might end up exposing your password information without realizing that the page is bogus.
Hackers can do a lot using malware, from accessing your phone camera with spyware to roping your laptop into an illegal activity like botnet attacks. Public Wi-Fi is a great way for them to install such malicious software on your device.
Once they’ve got you connected, a criminal could use the man-in-the-middle tactic to redirect you to their own malware-infested page. This would automatically trigger a malware download, though you might not realize what had happened until much later. More insidious hackers might even take the data from a legitimate site and inject lines of their own malicious code. The data would then reach you and allow malware and viruses to creep into your device undetected.
3 ways to stay safe on public Wi-Fi
- Use a VPN. The simplest and most effective way to stay safe on public Wi-Fi is to use a VPN or virtual private network. Services like NordVPN keep your data encrypted, whatever connection you’re using. Even if your Wi-Fi isn’t secure, hackers won’t be able to access the valuable information you’re sending or receiving. One account covers up to six devices, so, when you’re on the move, you can rest easy knowing your phone, laptop, and tablet are all covered. You can read this NordVPN review to learn more about keeping your data secure at all times.
- Double-check the available networks. When you’re in a public space and you’re picking a network to connect to, have a good look at all the options available. If the one you’re looking for appears twice, perhaps with slightly varying names, that’s a red flag. As a rule, your chances are better on password-protected Wi-Fi. If there are two similar options, and one of them doesn’t use a login process, that could be a malicious decoy.
- Limit sensitive activity on public Wi-Fi. If you’re not using a VPN, then it’s a good idea to avoid sending any sensitive information through public Wi-Fi. Even if a hacker has hacked into the router you’re using, they won’t get much use out of your data if you’re just browsing news sites and watching YouTube. While on public Wi-Fi, try not to use login interfaces, online banking, or payment systems.