November 19, 2021
Privacy Tip of the Week: Never Use Public Wi-Fi
Posted by Rhiannon
Sometimes you need to send an email, check your banking information, find directions, or just do a simple online search when you’re out in public. To make that easier, many businesses and even cities are offering free public wi-fi. While it’s convenient and saves you from burning through your cellular data or having to go home to complete your task, using public wi-fi puts you at risk from attackers who can easily hack into unsecured networks. To protect your privacy and safety from these risks, you should do your best to avoid public wi-fi at all times. Unfortunately, sometimes using public wi-fi is unavoidable. When those cases arise, use this article for our tips on staying safe with public wi-fi.
- What is the difference between wi-fi, data, and ethernet?
- What risks does public wi-fi pose?
- How do hackers gain access to public networks?
- Can you tell if a network is unsafe?
- Ways to stay safe on public wi-fi
What is the Difference Between Wi-Fi, Data, and Ethernet?
Some people use the terms “internet” and “wi-fi” interchangeably, as if they are synonyms. However, the two terms actually mean different things. “Internet” describes a collection of digital data. Meanwhile, “wi-fi” is a specific type of technology used to access the internet. Nor is it the only one. Currently, there are three main ways to access the internet: wi-fi, data, and ethernet. Each method has key differences that make them unique and it’s important to know them to understand and appreciate the risks of using public wi-fi specifically.
Wi-fi is a wireless network technology that transmits information via a series of signals from an internet connection to a compatible device. It requires no cables or hardware connection to an internet access point, which allows users great mobility when it comes to accessing the web. However, because the information transferred through a wi-fi network is sent, quite literally, through the air, this actually makes wi-fi a less secure method of using the web than a method like ethernet.
Wi-fi networks can typically be divided into two categories: public and private. Private networks tend to be safer than public ones because access to them is restricted, typically by a password. If that password is only given to trusted users, the threat to others on the network is low. A public network, by contrast, is accessible by anyone. It may not use a password at all, or that password might be given to anyone who wants it. For example, a local mall might protect its wi-fi network with a password, but that password is on posters around the mall so that all visitors can use it. If even one of those visitors has malicious intent, they could compromise every other user on the network.
Fun fact: you may see some people claim that “wi-fi” is short for “wireless fidelity,” however this claim is a myth. The term has no formal meaning, and was instead chosen by a marketing team because it sounded appropriately “tech-y” for an emerging technology. “Wireless fidelity” was applied to the term only after it had been chosen.
An ethernet connection to the web is similar to wi-fi, but has one key difference. The user’s device must be physically connected to the internet access point via a cable in order to receive and transmit digital web data. An ethernet connection tends to be faster and more reliable than wi-fi, as well as more secure. In order to intercept information sent via ethernet, a person must also be physically connected to the network with an ethernet cable.
If you have a smartphone plan that includes cellular data, you can use that data to connect to the internet by way of a cellphone signal. In order to connect, you must be in range of a cell tower. The biggest drawback of cellular data is that many telecommunications providers limit how much data you can use on your device (or demand exorbitant fees for unlimited use). However, the internet information transferred over a cellular network is more likely to be thoroughly encrypted than what passes over a public wi-fi network, which makes it much safer to use.
What Risks Does Public Wi-Fi Pose?
A public wi-fi network is the riskiest way to connect to the web. But why? Unfortunately, many people aware of an abstract risk to their digital security won’t do anything to protect themselves. However, many of the risks of public wi-fi are very real and easily comprehendible. They include:
Depending on how a public network is set up, your activity may not be encrypted, or may be compromised by “packet sniffing” which is essentially an eavesdropping technology. That means anyone with a little bit of know-how can see exactly what you’re doing as you’re doing it. If you log in to your Facebook page, email, or bank account, it’s possible that a snoop can simply copy your details and use them for their own personal gain later. The danger increases further for those browsing websites without SSL encryption.
Most internet service providers track your digital activity. It’s a price you pay when you sign up for internet access, unfortunately. However, when you control your own internet network, you might also be able to control the level of access your ISP gets to your data. The same can’t be said for a public wi-fi network. Using these networks means your activity can be tracked, your data collected, and all information about you sold to third parties.
If you’re especially unlucky, a malicious user might be able to inject malware into your devices simply because you’re using the same public network. The malware can include things like adware, which spams you with advertisements while you’re on the network, to ransomware, which locks your device until you pay a fee to unlock it.
With session hijacking, a hacker gathers information about your device and its connection to the public network. A bit of wizardry later, and the hacker can effectively make it appear as though their device is your device, and take over your connection to whatever website you’re visiting. If you happen to be on your bank’s website, for example, the hacker’s computer suddenly looks like your computer, and gives them access to your account.
Can You Tell if a Public Wi-Fi Network is Unsafe?
Public wi-fi is everywhere. But are all public networks truly unsafe? Can you tell the difference between the safe ones and unsafe ones?
Of course, not every network has a hacker or snoop lurking on it to steal your information or load up your device with malware. Unfortunately, it’s virtually impossible to tell who might be posing a risk to your data simply by looking at a network. Often, many users don’t realize they’ve been compromised at all, or only realize it when their devices start acting suspicious. At that point, it’s too late.
The safest protocol is to assume that all public wi-fi networks are unsafe and to avoid them, or to take steps to be safe on all public networks.
Ways to Stay Safe on Public Wi-Fi
Realistically, how often does abstinence-only education work for anything? Kids are going to get up to hanky panky. A person on a diet is going to be tempted to have a cheat day. Someone who needs to use public wi-fi is going to use it, no matter how dangerous it is.
Instead, we recommend that, if you need to use public wi-fi, you ensure that you’re using it as safely as possible. There are a few steps you can take to protect your session, including:
- Not accessing personally identifiable information
- Turning on a VPN
- Using SSL connections
- Splurging for extra data
- Turning sharing off
Not Accessing Personally Identifiable Information
Personal information includes anything from your banking information, your social security/insurance number, email or phone number, your home address, and anything that ties personally to you. Using any of that information on a public wi-fi network puts it at risk of theft. If you must use public wi-fi, don’t sign up or sign in to accounts that include your information.
Turning on a VPN
If you do have to use personally identifiable information over public wi-fi, turn on a VPN first. Heck, use a VPN even if you’re not accessing sensitive data. A VPN, or virtual private network, creates a secure and private connection over a wi-fi network. It prevents others from seeing what you’re doing online and makes sure your information stays yours.
Using SSL Connections
In some cases, you may need to use public wi-fi without giving away any personal information. That’s safer, but still poses a risk. Devices connected to public networks can still face exposure to viruses and other types of attacks. To minimize this risk, only visit websites that use SSL connections. SSL is an extra layer of security and encryption that helps keep you safe. To check if a website uses SSL security, take a look at the URL. If it starts with “HTTPS” instead of “HTTP,” or just has a little lock icon next to it, it uses SSL encryption.
Splurging for Extra Data
One of the best ways to avoid public wi-fi is to make sure you never have to use it. Beefing up your phone plan to include extra data is a great way to never be without secure internet access. It may cost some extra money but your privacy and safety is worth it.
Turning Sharing Off
Some devices come equipped with a file sharing feature, which in some cases is left on by default. However, unless you’re actively sharing files, there’s little need to have that function on. Leaving it on all the time can actually offer attackers a way into your device.
Sometimes using public wi-fi is unavoidable. However you can keep yourself safe by knowing the risks and how to avoid them.
For more tips on staying safe online, visit our blog.
Posted by Rhiannon
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