Public Wi-Fi can be found in popular public places like airports, coffee shops, malls, restaurants, and hotels — and it allows you to access the Internet for free. These “hotspots” are so widespread and common that people frequently connect to them without thinking twice. Although it sounds harmless to log on and check your social media account or browse some news articles, everyday activities that require a login — like reading e-mail or checking your bank account — could be risky business on public Wi-Fi.
While they may seem convenient and economical, public networks are a nightmare for cyber security. Data sent through them can be intercepted easily by anyone else on that network, meaning passwords, banking details and other vital information could be seen by cyber-criminals.
Despite this, the majority of adults worldwide have used public Wi-Fi connections to log into personal email accounts. As a general cyber security tip, we would recommend avoiding them on any device. However, if you really have no alternative, there are ways to access them more securely:
- Only use legitimate public Wi-Fi networks – While all public networks are inherently insecure, some networks are actually set up by cyber-criminals specifically to capture your information. In many cases, they will even use the same connection name as your hotel, coffee shop or public transport provider.
- Use a virtual private network (VPN) – A VPN encrypts all data that is sent through your connection. This means nobody – not even the internet provider – can see what you’re sending. To use a VPN, you will need to sign up for VPN services, which are available through a range of providers. You will then need to install an app or configure your devices with the VPN service.
- Secure your devices – As well as obtaining information while you’re connected, cyber criminals can use public networks to inject malware (malicious software) onto devices. Viruses, worms and spyware will be even more devastating for you or your business, giving hackers ongoing access to information and spreading to other devices, sometimes without detection.
- Don’t use Unencrypted networks – Encryption means that the information that is sent between your computer and the wireless router are in the form of a “secret code,” so that it cannot be read by anyone who doesn’t have the key to decipher the code. Most routers are shipped from the factory with encryption turned off by default, and it must be turned on when the network is set up. If an IT professional sets up the network, then chances are good that encryption has been enabled. However, there is no surefire way to tell if this has happened.
To minimise the risk, don’t connect to public networks on any devices without security software.
- Stay cautious – Even if you’ve taken precautions, remember that you’re still connected to a public network. Try to avoid signing into important accounts, such as banking and emails, or accessing any financial information. Needless to say, you should also be careful about which sites you’re visiting, as there are still the same risks with insecure sites.