Nowadays, we rely on internet connections for almost everything. From communication to banking, we spend a huge amount of our time online. In fact, a study conducted at the end of 2019 found that people spend an average of five to six hours online every day, that’s around 25% of their day. Pretty staggering statistics we think you’ll agree!
Because of our reliance on the internet, businesses and public arenas around the globe have done their best to cater to the age of the internet. This has meant cafes, pubs, hotel, restaurants, shopping malls, trains and even entire town centres now offer free Wi-Fi for visitors. And this access to the internet via public Wi-Fi can be extremely beneficial, for example, if you run out of data or if you need to do some work on the go.
However, it does not come without its problems. Public connections have given cybercriminals a new way to see, access and steal data from those connecting to the network. They have learnt to exploit people’s need to stay connected and subsequently, you need to be more alert when doing so. That’s why in this guide we’ll take a look at some of the biggest threats posed by public Wi-Fi, before looking at how you can make the most out of these internet connections safely.
The biggest risks of using public Wi-Fi
Though there are a number of risks that come with using public Wi-Fi (if not done carefully of course), some are more prevalent than others. Below are some of the most common threats, though this is by no means an exhaustive list:
If you’ve got software vulnerabilities or weak security systems on your devices, hackers can exploit this. Using the public connection, they are able to gain access through this hole or weakness and can then inject malware into your device. Once this is in there, this can damage your computer or even allow them to steal the sensitive data stored within.
A man-in-the-middle attack is essentially eavesdropping for the digital age. When we use the internet, data is always being sent from one point to another; essentially from your device to the website or service you’re using. Vulnerabilities in the connection (which are more prevalent in public Wi-Fi connections as these are designed for anyone to be able to join) allows cybercriminals to intercept – or get in the middle of – these transmissions. They can then read the information being sent between the two servers.
Some cybercriminals will even set up their own fake Wi-Fi hotspots to trick their victims into connecting to them under the assumption that it’s just a free public Wi-Fi. These rogue hotspots then allow them to gain access to your information and to eavesdrop on the websites and services you’re using.
How to use public Wi-Fi safely
Now, this article is not designed to scare you and put you off using public Wi-Fi altogether, because there are times when it comes in very handy! But instead, by educating people on safety best practises when using these connections they can protect themselves from becoming the victim of a cybercrime. Some of the best ways to protect yourself when using public Wi-Fi include:
Using a VPN
The most effective way to keep yourself and your data safe is by installing a Virtual Private Network (VPN) on your device. In a nutshell, this VPN will encrypt the data travelling in and out of your device via a secure server, making it harder for the people who control the public Wi-Fi or any cybercriminals who may be eavesdropping, to see your sensitive information. There are lots of VPN providers out there, you just need to find the one that’s best for you.
Making sure your device has security features
You should always ensure that your laptops and tablets have effective security systems in place. At the very least a firewall and anti-malware software should be installed to protect your data and you should use strong passwords for everything. This is not just good practise for using public Wi-Fi connections but for keeping your devices safe at all times. Ensure you update these systems regularly.
Not using personal details or share private documents
If you’re going to be using public Wi-Fi, it’s a good idea to keep file-sharing or the use of personal data to a minimum while doing so. For example, it is not advised that you log into your online banking whilst connected or make a large transactions that require your bank details. Similarly, try to avoid logging into online databases or sending attachments via email, especially those that contain lots of sensitive data. If possible, wait until you’re able to connect to your own private server to do these things.
Turning off automatic connectivity
Some Wi-Fi connections will allow your device to log on instantly when you arrive. You probably have this automatic connectivity at your home to save you entering the password every time. But in the case of public Wi-Fi, you should disable this feature so your device doesn’t automatically connect when you get within reaching distance. Otherwise, you might be minding your own business using the internet as usual, unaware that you’re actually still connected to the public Wi-Fi.
Looking out for sites that are ‘not secure’
One of the great features of Google Chrome (and many there browsers) is that it will flag when a site is not secure. It’s best to stick to HTTP websites, but should you find yourself on a site you’ve never visited before, Chrome will alert you if it is unsecured. It does so by displaying a message saying ‘not secure’ or ‘your connection is not private’. You then have the option to continue to visit the site if you wish, but Google will alert you first so you can make an informed decision. So always look out for the warnings.