Coffee shops, airports, hotels, even school campuses may all be places where you’re connecting to public Wi-Fi. With rises in remote work and e-learning trends, connection with any of these networks may become more of an everyday occurrence. Public networks are great for accessibility — but using them can leave your device, and any personal data on it, vulnerable to cybersecurity threats.
What Are the Risks of Public Wi-Fi Networks?
It’s important to understand what the risks posed by public Wi-Fi are in order to protect yourself effectively. There are several ways that public Wi-Fi poses risks to users, including:
- Older encryption standards — Some older public networks may use what are now considered outdated encryption standards, such as wireless encryption protocol (WEP) instead of Wi-Fi protected access (WPA). WEP is considered easier to hack, and public networks using WEP standards may be a target for hackers. You can view whether the network you’re connected to is WEP or WPA by viewing the network properties.
- Rogue Hotspots — This is another risk using an unsecured public network can pose. Hackers can set up fake, or rogue, hotspots in order to perform man-in-the-middle attacks and intercept or modify personal data. Rogue hotspots may mimic a business name and appear as a duplicate, or appear randomly to try and get users to connect.
- Increased Access — Public Wi-Fi, both secured and unsecured, are typically less safe to use, and host more users than private networks. This poses risks on two fronts; data you’re sharing on this network is more easily accessible to those who may go looking for it, and you don’t always know who else is on your same network.
Secured vs. Unsecured Networks
There are typically two types of public networks — secured and unsecured. Unsecured public Wi-Fi doesn’t require a password of any kind and can be automatically connected to when in range. While this can be helpful, it is considered riskier because anyone can access it at any time.
Secured Wi-Fi requires a password for access. Unlike private networks with passwords, a secure public network is a network that requires a password that may be displayed publicly, via signage in a coffee shop, for example. These networks are still widely accessible and pose risks, but tend to be considered safer than unsecured networks because there is some barrier to access.
How to Stay Safe on Public Wi-Fi
Preparing your devices for public use can help you mitigate cybersecurity disasters before they happen, and allow you to continue using public Wi-Fi safely. For starters, anti-virus software should be active on any device connecting to the internet, regardless of whether the network is public or private. Here are some best practices for securing your devices before connecting to a public network.
Limit What You’re Accessing
It’s generally good practice to limit or avoid accessing your own sensitive data when using a public network. Banking and credit card sites, or sites that require your Social Security number, for example, should generally be avoided while you’re on either an unsecured or secured public network. This way, you aren’t unintentionally exposing these sensitive details on a widely accessed network.
Turn Off Bluetooth and File Sharing
You’ll want to be sure to turn off all remote sharing options to your devices when you connect to public Wi-Fi, including Bluetooth and other file-sharing technology, so as to limit their points of access on said devices. Businesses and malicious actors alike can send spam, malware, and other unwanted data and applications directly to your phone and without permission by hijacking these remote sharing avenues.
Use Two-Factor Authentication
Two-factor authentication can be a great tool for protecting your personal accounts across your devices, especially on public networks. Two-factor authentication typically requires a password and an additional step. This could be a PIN, security question, or a code that gets texted or emailed to a secondary device. So even if a hacker is able to get your account username and password, two-factor authentication can still stop them from gaining access to your account.
Get a VPN
A VPN, or a virtual private network, is one of the best methods of protection you can rely on when using public Wi-Fi. A VPN extends over a public network and allows you to share and receive data as if you were directly connected to a private network. You can get a VPN through a private company, such as Norton, ExpressVPN, or several others. These companies typically offer month-to-month or yearly subscription plans, ranging from $5 a month to $12 a month. If you’re a student or a business owner, you may be able to get a discount for VPN use.
Reach Out to IT With Concerns
If you work remotely or are using public Wi-Fi for work or school purposes, you should reach out to your work or school’s IT department or MSP with any security concerns. IT professionals have specialized tools at their disposal to address security risks and may deploy network discovery tools to detect all systems being used, as well as remote access software. These tools can help identify points of vulnerability and troubleshoot issues in real-time.
Understanding how public networks interact with your devices can help you protect yourself, without sacrificing the convenience and utility of public Wi-Fi. Being an informed user is a part of being a responsible digital citizen, and these tools can help you keep your personal data safe, any time, anywhere.