It’s relaxing to sit in a coffee shop, plug in your laptop, and get to work while you sip on a delicious cup of joe. However, it might not be so relaxing when you think about the threats you open yourself up to as you sign onto that coffee shop’s public Wi-Fi network. The next time you’re tempted to send your sensitive information over a public Internet connection, think about the dangers and take steps to protect yourself.
Why Public Wi-Fi Is Dangerous
Crackers, or criminal hackers, love public Wi-Fi. While there are numerous different ways the bad guys can take advantage of your fondness for free Wi-Fi, the following are some of the most common attacks.
You’re sitting at the airport waiting for your flight, and the list of available networks on your device contains both “Airport Wi-Fi” and “Airport Terminal Wi-Fi.” Both networks offer a strong signal, and you see other people around you glued to their devices, probably connected to one of the networks. Either network should be safe, right? Wrong.
Hackers may set up dummy Wi-Fi networks, hoping you’ll connect. If you do, the bad guy will then be able to see everything you’re doing online. The result could be identity theft, contraction of viruses, or monetary loss.
Even if you’re connected to the correct Wi-Fi network, hackers might be connected to the same network. These public connections are usually unencrypted, which means that when you log in, you’re pretty much giving cyber villains an invitation to snoop on your browsing activities.
Many websites have encryption that provides something of a safeguard for your passwords and account information. However, a hacker could direct you to a dummy website that looks almost exactly like a website that you regularly visit. If you’re not careful, you could enter your information on that site, effectively handing it on a silver platter to someone who wants to steal your identity.
Third-Party Data Gathering
Network World explains third-party data gathering: “Often the biggest breaches of privacy are performed by the very establishments offering free Wi-Fi. Sometimes Wi-Fi is used to identify potential customers who are located in the vicinity of the access point, and sometimes it’s used to track the websites that a user visits for statistical or advertising purposes.”
This type of information gathering won’t compromise your online safety, but it can still make you feel that your privacy has been violated.
Protect Yourself on Public Wi-Fi: The Dos and Don’ts
Fortunately, it isn’t too difficult to enjoy the perks of public Wi-Fi without compromising your personal data:
- Do keep your device’s OS and its anti-malware and anti-spyware software up to date.
- Do ask an employee of the business you’re visiting for the name of the Wi-Fi network. If there are two with identical names, choose not to connect at all.
- Do shield yourself from eyeballs. Hackers might try to steal your information through high-tech means, but they could also just look over your shoulder. Be aware of your surroundings, noting anyone who looks suspicious.
- Do use a VPN, also known as a proxy server, which disguises your computer’s IP address. Even if you’re connected to that coffee shop Wi-Fi, it could look like you’re hooked up to a server that’s on the other side of the country. VPNs such as Hotspot Shield also use powerful encryption to keep your data safe and sound.
- Do keep your browsing session short so hackers have less chance to attack you. When you’re done using the network, turn off your device’s Wi-Fi connection.
There are also some things to avoid while you’re on public Wi-Fi:
- Don’t keep your device’s file sharing setting on. Some devices will automatically share information with other gadgets on the same network. Needless to say, this is a bad thing on public networks.
- Don’t conduct important business. Avoid using bank websites or other sites that might compromise your money or identity if the wrong person got hold of your login information. Also, try not to send or view any private emails.
- Don’t leave your device unattended. A bad guy could insert a keylogger that keeps track of what you type. It might seem inconvenient to pack up your computer and lug it into the bathroom with you even if you don’t plan on taking long, but the extra security is worth the hassle.
Public Wi-Fi is a useful tool that can save you from boredom and help you be productive while you’re out and about. Even so, use it with caution, or you could end up as the victim of a cyberattack.