There’s no denying that public WiFi hotspots have made things extremely convenient for people to be productive on the go. Whether it’s because you lose your 4G signal, or you have limited data, hotspots keep you working, posting or sharing.

But you should be aware these public networks may not be as safe as the ones in your home or office. Sure, your local coffeehouse’s WiFi network may be super-convenient for checking up on the latest social happenings as you sip your morning latte, but they often lack sufficient security controls because of the simple fact that anyone can log in to them. When you’re on a public hotspot, it’s important to keep in mind who else may be accessing it and to pay extra attention to what information you’re sharing.

The Security Threats of Public WiFi Networks

When you think of what personal information you share publicly, your mind might go straight towards what you choose to share publicly like photos and social updates. However, accessing a public WiFi can be the equivalent to sharing your passwords, usernames or credit card information as your latest status update.

Once you connect to a public hotspot, everyone else on that network has the ability to access the information that’s stored on your device. They can gain access to your unencrypted data by “listening” for traffic and intercepting it.

This differs from home networks where only those with the password to access the router can jump aboard. If you don’t want a specific person to use your home network, you simply don’t give them the credentials to access it. In a public place, you don’t have this option – the whole point of public WiFi is that anyone can use it, for whatever purpose they fancy.

Thankfully, many sites now use encryption through HTTPS (the secure version of HTTP), which makes a hacker’s job much more difficult. When you head to a secure site, your browser shakes hands with the site and exchanges encryption information. After that, the traffic is pretty much useless to anyone trying to intercept it.

While it’s a real asset, HTTPS isn’t foolproof. The first layer of trust between you and your chosen site is a certificate issued by a trusted authority, a virtual verification that tells your browser the site is what it claims to be. It’s up to you to ensure you only accept security certificates signed by trusted sources.

You should be aware that fake certificates do exist, and while they’re relatively rare, they are a clear risk to your privacy and security. The good thing is that your browser will notify you now if a certificate appears to be risky, so don’t just ignore it and continue your web browsing. Instead, take the time to actually read it and, if you’re not happy with the guidance, don’t continue.

Another popular method of hacking is the dummy network – a type of “honeypot” attack. In this approach, a hacker sets up an attractive open network for you to connect to. Once you connect to it, all the unencrypted information you post is transmitted to the hacker before anywhere else, and ultimately compromises your data.

It’s alarming to think of an uninvited party having access to your latest emails or a list of your usernames, but through this information, a hacker could gain access to even more personal information. For example, access to your email account could introduce access to your financial information, giving the hacker the ability to log on to your online bank, savings, investments or deposit accounts. Or, if you enter your address on your favorite clothing website, you could let the hacker know where you live. If you complete this access by logging on to your social media accounts, you could give this hacker a complete picture – potentially giving a would-be attacker your entire identity – and it will only take a rogue credit card or loan application for you to end up with a hole in your bank balance.

Top Tips for Public WiFi Safety

While no public WiFi hotspot is truly safe, you can insulate yourself from potential harm by taking a few simple steps:

  • Don’t let your device automatically connect to open WiFi networks. Many devices have this switched on by default to ensure accurate localized search results, but it could connect you to a questionable open network.
  • Before you connect to a public hotspot, ensure your sharing options are blocked. Allowing printer or file sharing settings could put you at high risk.
  • Forget the public network once you’re done using it. This will prevent your device from automatically reconnecting to it without your knowledge.
  • Don’t connect to sensitive sites. Avoid accessing online banking accounts and work networks. Losing your own private information is bad, but losing your employer’s information could be considerably worse.
  • Ensure remote login is switched off on your device. We’re trying to stop hackers, not roll out the red carpet for them.
  • Ensure that your software and apps come from trusted sources. The last thing you want to do is voluntarily install a back door into your own system.

Although the convenience of public WiFi is sometimes too much to resist, you need to remember to be extra vigilant protecting your device and make sure you aren’t accessing any data online that you wouldn’t want the public to see. Changing your attitude towards security will not only ensure your information is safe, but if you spread the word, it could eventually make public WiFi hotspots safer for everyone to use.

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Clare Hopping

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Clare Hopping

Clare Hopping has been writing about consumer technologies for 12 years. She began her career writing about smartphones and now writes about everything in the tech world, from TVs to consoles, servers to security.

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