Even if you have a robust and speedy mobile data plan (and are in a location with adequate signal), there’s something irresistible about free public Wi-Fi. It must be that magic word — free — in combination with the possibilities of the online world. This makes it something that all smart retailers and eateries should offer their patrons, especially since it isn’t that expensive.
But the next time you stop somewhere to grab a coffee, you should think twice before taking out your phone and looking for available networks. Public Wi-Fi may be a strong positive overall, but there are dangers inherent to using it, and you need to be aware of them. That’s why we’re going to cover them in this piece — so let’s run through them.
Hackers can spy on your activity
When you access a network with unknown levels of security, you open yourself up to assorted spying attempts from myriad parties with varying motivations. Some might want to gather your data so they can use it to improve their marketing, while others might want to use it to blackmail you somehow or gain access to your financial accounts.
While it’s possible for a public Wi-Fi network to be secure, there’s little reason for those hosting it to bother with that kind of effort. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use a public Wi-Fi network, though — just use a VPN to ensure that your connection is encrypted and secure regardless.
Some networks are illegitimate
You might think you’re safe in connecting to a particular network because you trust the company providing it, but do you really know that you’re connecting to the right network? Let’s say you have your phone configured to connect to the specific SSID of Test Network with a username and a password, so whenever you stop by that place, it automatically logs on.
If someone copies the SSID and security settings of that network (and configures their network to accept any login details, including yours), they can set up a more powerful router close to the legitimate one and create a new Test Network that appears with a stronger signal than the original network. When your device gets close, it will connect to the copycat SSID due to the superior signal strength, leaving you connected to an unfamiliar network.
Your devices are more vulnerable
Relying heavily on public Wi-Fi leaves your devices more vulnerable to infection.
Not only could some kind of worm or virus be transmitted to your device from the host of the public network, but it could also reach your device via the network courtesy of another connected device — and the owner of that other device might not even know their device is infected. There doesn’t need to be any malicious intent involved in the hosting of a public Wi-Fi network for it to end up facilitating the propagation of malware.
If you like using free public Wi-Fi, and you probably do for the reason we detailed in the intro, then, by all means, continue to use it: even if you take no action to safeguard your device in light of the issues we’ve looked at, there’s a decent chance you’ll never have any major issues stemming from free Wi-Fi.
Because of how significant the risks are, though, that isn’t a chance worth taking. The simple act of configuring a VPN is all that’s required — so choose a provider that suits your needs, whether free or paid, and get in the habit of using it.
The article Risks to Consider When Using Public Wi-Fi by Rodney Laws first appeared in Street Fight Magazine.