Public Wi-Fi was once something of a rarity, but today it is commonplace. Many of us live in areas that have public Wi-Fi and there is often an open Wi-Fi network available to the public in major cities and urban areas. And, as we use it, we don’t want to think about how the network is set up. We don’t care if the routers of those Wi-Fi networks are using transparent proxies or firewalls, but we should.

What You Need to Know About Public Wi-Fi

Public Wi-Fi is undeniably convenient, many of us who would otherwise be confined to our homes during the working day are able to go to a local coffee shop and use their Wi-FI. However, as is always the case with technology, there is a price to that convenience.

Convenience at a Price

When you connect to the internet through your own Wi-Fi network, you don’t have to worry about any suspect devices on your network. As long as you protect your Wi-Fi with WPA2 encryption (by default, your router will ship configured with a WPA2 password) there is very little chance that a malicious actor will be able to connect to your network and potentially intercept your data and snoop on your web traffic.

When you log on to an unsecured network, however, there are no such guarantees. Remember, if you can log on to an open Wi-Fi network, so can anyone else who is in range. Public Wi-Fi networks are rarely set up with security in mind, meaning that unencrypted data flows freely between connected devices and the router. Some businesses will secure their Wi-Fi with a password, but don’t be lulled into a false sense of security – all this means is that an attacker has to ask for the password and log in before they can do anything nefarious.

The Risks

A potential attacker can easily take advantage of this situation to intercept data travelling to or from your device. The tools and know-how to do this are easily available, you don’t need to be a talented hacker in order to be able to pull it off.

Watching all of the data flowing through a network is not practical for the most crowded public places, and smart attackers will target networks with as many simultaneous users as possible. Instead, attackers will set up filters to look for certain types of traffic. They can lie in wait until someone uses a public network to log in to their bank account or social media profile and intercept the data.

Not only can an attacker intercept your data, but they can also alter it before passing it on to you. This makes it relatively straightforward to execute a sophisticated phishing attack. For example, they can wait until someone tries to log in to their Facebook account, intercept the legitimate Facebook login page and replace it with their own. When the user enters their account information, they are sending it to the attacker instead of Facebook.

How to Stay Safe on Public Wi-Fi

These risks don’t mean that you should avoid public Wi-Fi networks altogether. After all, public Wi-Fi networks are convenient and can be really useful in a pinch. Instead of avoiding them altogether, learn how to use them safely.

  • The first thing you should do with any public Wi-Fi network is to verify that it is legitimate. An attacker can easily turn their own device into a hotspot and wait for unsuspecting victims to connect to it. This means they don’t even need to intercept your data – you will be sending it directly to them. Only connect to networks whose SSID makes it clear they belong to a legitimate business.
  • A VPN is another good measure to take to protect yourself. A VPN encrypts data before it leaves your device. Even if it is intercepted by an attacker, they won’t be able to read it. Never use a free VPN service, this is likely just another way of stealing your data.
  • If you don’t have a VPN, you can still ensure that any data sent between you and a website is encrypted. Check the URL bar in your browser and make sure the website is using HTTPS instead of standard HTTP. Most browsers will show a padlock icon next to the URL to signify an HTTPS connection.
  • Finally, make sure that you have your computer’s firewall enabled. A firewall only provides a basic level of protection, but it will keep you safe from the most basic attacks and prevent unauthorised remote access. A firewall will also monitor incoming data packets to make sure that they aren’t malicious. Lots of people turn the Windows firewall off because of its annoying pop-ups and occasional compatibility issues. If you have turned it off and forgotten about it, head over to the control panel and then find the option to turn it back on under ‘System and Security’.

Public Wi-Fi networks are an attractive playground for a would-be hacker or cybercriminal. But as long as you stick to the advice outlined above and stay vigilant, you can continue to use them without fear.

iLounge author Lucy Bennett

Lucy Bennett is a Contributing Editor at iLounge. She has been writing about Apple and technology for over six years. Prior to joining iLounge, Lucy worked as a writer for several online publications.