How to Stay Safe on Public Wifi

Wifi seems to be available everywhere, a wonderful opportunity for those who work remotely – or who attempt to stay in touch with social media consistently. Major internet providers are seeking to extend a network of coverage across cities and in neighborhoods by piggybacking on existing customers. Yet warnings about vulnerability of public networks should not be dismissed, even by those with a Virtual Private Network (VPN) that protects their data. Despite advancements in security, dangers may still lurk.

how to stay safe on public wifi

Dangers of Connecting to Public Wifi

Many of the dangers of connecting to unprotected public wifi networks have been quelled due to the availability of encryption on individual apps and browsers, but users should be vigilant as these protections aren’t universally provided.

If you experience an uptick in the number of spam emails or phishing emails (those that use the spoofed address of a trusted business or associate in an attempt to get you to click a link or divulge a password or PIN) then stay clear of that wifi network in the future. Using reverse email lookup tools can help to identify dangerous emails, and  along with ensuring your system updates are current and you’re using a good antivirus software, the following information will help you identify safe networks.

Hackers take many forms. Depending on one’s browser or the app you’re using on a public wifi system there still may be dangers of:

  • Packet sniffing, which is the process of monitoring traffic (“packets”) on networks; hackers may be able to exploit weaknesses in some networks to search for the presence of sensitive information.
  • Man in the middle attacks are small-scale attacks that prey upon those using free public wifi that is unencrypted; hackers may monitor open wifi network users to identify victims and break into their communications or devices via wifi, scooping up sensitive data that can be used to hack into other accounts.
  • No encryption. Encryption sends messages, including passwords, in coded language to evade hacking. Experts warn that many phone apps lack encryption and it can be challenging to determine how safe they are. Always check the URL of the web page you visit to ensure it has the padlock symbol and starts with HTTPS://. These indicate higher security and encryption. Lack of encryption combined with public wifi networks is a recipe for disaster, because without these factors your private information is on display to those with malicious intentions.
  • Malware gets a red carpet welcome on free public wifi. Malware is nefarious code that can damage one’s hard drive, steal sensitive information, and spread unchecked through the victim’s contact list. It is to be avoided at all costs, including completely avoiding unprotected wifi networks. Malware may be inserted into a person’s device through many means including clickbait, unauthorized downloads, advertisements, and fake social media interactions.
  • Session hijacking is a method of stealing your account information that is made easier by open wifi networks. When you log on to a personal account, the host network generates a “session cookie” to track the transaction. On an open wifi network a hacker can grab the session cookie and continue the transaction, including draining your account or gaining access to personal information that can be used to hack into other accounts as well.

How to Avoid These Dangers

Practice good wifi hygiene to avoid the dangers of hacking via public networks. Always check the security of a network before logging in, then keep these tips in mind:

  • Don't share your device when connecting. Make sure that your device cannot be discovered by others on the network. This is generally a step in logging on to a network.
  • Authenticate the network you're connecting to. Check for the network’s security level. WPA means it’s protected but WPA2 is a higher level of security.
  • Use VPN. A virtual private network (VPN) is an added level of security that masks your network address and usually provides encryption by routing your browsing activity through remote servers. Some browsers have built-in VPN security, including Chrome while others may subscribe to add-on VPN services. Unfortunately some websites do not interact with VPN-encrypted communication, requiring the user to disable the service to do necessary tasks.
  • Multi factor authentication increases the security of your online communication by blocking unauthorized users. This security is generally at the log-in level, requiring an authentication key. Be sure to find out if the multi-factor authentication extends to the services used during your session. For instance, Gmail, the most-used email application, can be used via VPN but its internal security is notoriously lax for the general user, including selling user’s private data. Gsuite users with certain qualifications (with education or business accounts) are eligible for higher security. Some add-on services for encrypting messages are compatible with Gmail but many require the recipient of the message to use the same add-on to decrypt the information. Gmail may be encrypted on iPhones by activating S/MIME within the privacy settings options.
  • SSL connection refers to Secure Socket Layer, a type of website security most often associated with consumer transactions. Web domains (the platform that the website is built on) often include SSL certificates as part of a package when websites are developed, so they are run-of-the-mill encryption, but better than nothing. It’s possible to check a site’s SSL certificate before transacting business in order to protect oneself.

Conclusion

Internet security is not one-size-fits-all, it’s a system that each of us must educate ourselves about in order to proceed with due caution.