How to Safely Navigate Public WiFi Networks

How to Safely Navigate Public WiFi Networks

Whether it’s a trip for business or pleasure, public WiFi has become a necessity for staying connected whilst on the move. Found in busy public hotspots such as airports, hotels, restaurants and coffee shops, businesses around the world have been gaining a competitive edge by offering free public WiFi since 1999.

However, free WiFi isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. It’s likely you’re a fan of public WiFi. Well, we’re sorry to break this to you, but so are hackers!

With so much private data flying around, insecure public WiFi networks have become a real gold mine for sly cyber criminals.

Waiting to virtually pounce on their next unsuspecting victim, these latest statistics on public WiFi cybersecurity may make you think differently next time you visit your favorite cafe or co-working space.

  • A recent study conducted by Forbes found that 40% of respondents had their information compromised while using public WiFi.
  • The majority of respondents had their information compromised on airport or restaurant public WiFi.
  • 20% of those surveyed consider public WiFi somewhat unsafe.
  • 5% of respondents don’t consider public WiFi safe at all
  • 56% of those surveyed connect to public WiFi networks that don’t require passwords.
  • In the US alone, companies are experiencing on average 130 security breaches per company each year. This statistic is only set to increase.

Despite these statistics, public WiFi usage still remains high. Helping everyone regardless of their financial situation and location, it’s safe to say that free public WiFi is here to stay. 

So, if you’re still keen on navigating public WiFi networks, we’ve looked into the safest ways to go about it.

How can I browse safely on public WiFi?

1. Encrypted public WiFi connection

Using a public WiFi network with an encrypted connection is a good place to start.

If the lock icon is there, along with httpS, and it requires a password to access the network, it means the connection between your browser and the network is encrypted.

Secure networks may also ask you to agree to terms and conditions and register an account.

Allowing hackers to digitally ‘eavesdrop’ on your online transactions, encrypted public WiFi networks help defend your data against common public WiFi network threats such as man-in-the-middle attacks (MITM) and the like.

That said, the lock icon and “https” should not be solely relied upon when it comes to public WiFi security best practices. This is because cyber criminals have been known to exploit these recognised online security indicators through targeted HTTPS phishing scams.

2. Turn off auto-connect, bluetooth and file sharing

Are you aware that WiFi auto-join, bluetooth and file transfer functions could be putting your devices and data at serious risk?

Disable auto-connect, bluetooth and file sharing features on your laptop, tablet and mobile phone. This will prevent opportunist hackers from accessing your devices when you’re in range of a public WiFi network.

Believe it or not, using your phone as a hotspot is a safer alternative than using an unsecured public WiFi network.

3. Turn on two-step or multi-factor authentication

Two step authentication (2FA) adds another barrier against hackers by asking for two types of authentication, e.g. a password and a one-time passcode sent by text to a mobile phone.

Two factor authentication example

Multi-factor authentication adds at least two types of authentication to verify a user’s identity, e.g. a password, a one-time passcode sent by text, and a fingerprint scan.

So, no matter whether you’re remote working in a coffee shop or studying in the library, setting up two-step or multi-factor authentication will help keep your account data safe.

4. Enable your firewall and install antivirus software

If you’ve disabled your laptop’s firewall to avoid annoying pop ups and notifications, remember to turn it back on if you’re accessing a public WiFi network. A firewall will shield your network from unauthorized access and reduce the risk of a cyber attack even further.

Combine it with a reputable antivirus program for even more protection against hackers. A decent antivirus will protect you against malware trying to access your system while navigating public WiFi.

5. Use a VPN to safely navigate public WiFi networks

We’re often asked whether a VPN is secure over public WiFi. If you have no choice but to use a public WiFi network, using a Virtual Private Network (VPN) is the best line of defense against public WiFi hackers.

Typically more secure than a secured WiFi hotspot, VPN’s work by redirecting or ‘tunneling’ your internet connection through a private internet server.

Essentially encrypting your data and hiding your public IP address, using a high quality VPN to access public WiFi will make you virtually invisible to hungry hackers on the prowl for your tasty data and prevent you from being tracked.

What is the main risk of using public WiFi?

Clearly, the main risk of using public WiFi is hackers positioning themselves between your device and the connection point. But there are other risk factors you need to consider too.

So, to help you quickly identify public WiFi security risks and establish a solution to deter hackers from accessing your data, we’ve outlined five of the most common security risks with typical causes and examples below.

Security RiskCauseExample
Identity theftFake WiFi connectionTaking a loan out in the victim’s name
Malware attackWeak network exploitationStealing passwords
Ransomware attackWeak network exploitationGaining access to a website, taking it offline, and demanding a sum of money to reinstate it
PhishingWeak network exploitationMalicious ad that tricks you into filling out a phishing form
Session hijackingTake over active TCP/IP communication sessionObtaining credit card details to buy expensive items

Access to secure a public WiFi network holds the key to a better connected society. Much in the same way that the ETL definition is essential for efficient data migration, the ETL process can be used to optimize online security by encrypting data and requiring public key authentication codes to safely access sensitive data.

What not to do on public WiFi?

Accessing personal and business financial accounts, such as online banking and paying bills, on an unsecured network is the biggest ‘no-no’ for public WiFi.

Not only can hackers use private data for nefarious means, the knock-on effect could even impact your credit score and reduce your chances of borrowing money further down the line.

Other things to avoid when using a public Wifi network include:

  • Leaving devices unattended in a public place
  • Online shopping (leave that big domain purchase until you get home)
  • Using usernames and passwords, e.g. checking emails and social media
  • Connecting automatically
  • Customer relationship management tools 
  • Accounting software
  • Web addresses that don’t use HTTPS
    A secure domain includes the lock symbol just before the browser’s location field (https:// etc).
  • Watching or accessing anything compromising or embarrassing
  • File sharing
  • Not setting automatic security updates for devices and apps
  • Not using a reliable VPN provider.

What are the signs that your WiFi is hacked?

If you’re worried a public WiFi network has been hacked, if any of these seven tell-tale signs apply, you could very well be right!

  • Trouble logging in to the network
  • Slower than usual internet speed
  • Increasing numbers of pop-up ads
  • Ransomware messages
  • Unauthorized software installations on connected devices (such as a screen recorder)
  • Web browsers all navigate to the same website
  • Photos on your display screen vanish

The safest way to avoid exposing your sensitive data to hackers is to make sure you never connect to an unsafe WiFi network. Of course, this isn’t always possible, and this is where a trustworthy VPN comes into play.

More of your public WiFi security questions answered

Are .ai domains safe?

Originally created as a country code for those who live in Anguilla in the Caribbean, understandably, .ai is now being used by rising numbers of artificial intelligence companies to boost brand awareness, trust and credibility.

Best suited to tech companies and AI startups, you’ll be pleased to learn that .ai domains are incredibly safe to access and use. In the same league as top-level domains like .com, .org and .uk, .ai domains must adhere to the same TLD rules and restrictions that apply to all top-level domains.

Why is my VPN blocked on WiFi?

Occasionally, a public WiFi network may block you from accessing it with a VPN. Intentionally blocking a VPN tends to be a tactic to track your online activity in some way or another. So, be very wary if you discover this.

How do I unblock VPN on my WiFi?

To unblock a VPN on public WiFi, it may be as simple as changing your VPN provider to a different operator that hasn’t yet been blocked by the WiFi provider. It’s also worth checking for any updates for your VPN software, how stable the internet connection is, and if any firewalls are blocking your VPN from connecting.

If all else fails, find another public WiFi network nearby that allows you to connect to a VPN.

To Sum Up

VPN use has become a vital tool for navigating modern public WiFi networks securely. Connecting to public WiFi networks is fraught with danger.

A VPN essentially eliminates the associated pitfalls and smooths the way for secure connections and communications on these networks.

Ensuring personal and company data is kept safe and secure from unauthorized access, it’s time to harness the power of the humble VPN to get the most out of public WiFi networks.

Picture of Jenelle Fulton-Brown
Jenelle Fulton-Brown
Published in VentureBeat, Security Boulevard, Sticky Minds, Semaphore & many more, Jenelle is a decorated cybersecurity and internet privacy expert. For over a decade Jenelle built a career in systems and network administration at leading tech giants before pivoting to focus on internet privacy.

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