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Public WiFi: Is it Safe?

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No matter where you go these days, from airports, hotels, coffee shops, libraries, or retail stores, you'll often find a free WiFi network to connect to. Free, public WiFi provides fast and convenient internet access for travelers, remote workers, and anyone seeking to stay connected while out and about.

But using free WiFi has risks. Before you connect to that temptingly free public WiFi network, let's explore some public WiFi concerns and discuss best practices for protecting your devices and data against exploitation.

Is Public WiFi Safe?

We're not trying to scare you away from ever using a public WiFi network. Public WiFi can be a safe and convenient option for staying connected. Still, there are many security concerns users should be aware of — and there are safe, convenient alternatives, like mobile hotspots, available with many standard phone plans.

If, after reading this article, you're looking for a new cell phone plan with better hotspot capabilities, check out our free Plan Finder below. 

Maybe you've used public WiFi networks in the past without issue. That doesn't mean you weren't at risk, nor will you always be so fortunate. In the following sections, we'll break down some of the threats you might be exposed to while using public WiFi, along with tips for staying safe online and minimizing your vulnerability.

The Biggest Dangers of Connecting to Public WiFi

Imagine you connect to a free WiFi network at a coffee shop. What dangers might you run into? Here are a few examples:

Eavesdropping by Hackers

If you connect to the free WiFi at a coffee shop and do some online shopping on your phone or laptop, hackers could be eavesdropping on your activities. Unlike private home networks or other secure WiFi networks, public WiFi connections tend to rely on weak encryption (or even no encryption at all). This means it’s relatively easy for hackers to intercept and view data transmitted over the network — including sensitive information like login credentials, credit card numbers, and other personal data. 

Man-in-the-Middle Attacks

Man-in-the-middle (MITM) attacks take eavesdropping a step further. If a hacker launches a MITM attack while using the coffee shop’s free WiFi, they can view and manipulate any data transmitted between your device and the public WiFi access point. In addition to viewing your personal data, they could alter any transactions you perform and potentially redirect you to malicious websites. Victims of MITM attacks could experience data theft, identity theft, and financial losses. 

Malware Distribution

As you’re minding your own business, browsing on the coffee shop’s public WiFi network, a hacker could exploit vulnerabilities in the  network protocols to spread malicious code and malware programs. Once introduced to the network, malware can spread to your connected devices and wreak havoc, often causing ongoing issues with the devices and accounts it infects. 

Malware is a broad term for software designed to disrupt, damage, or gain unauthorized access to information or systems. Cybercriminals typically use malware for data theft, illicit surveillance, and finding additional victims to exploit.

Fake WiFi Networks

Before connecting to the WiFi at a coffee shop, always verify the network name with an employee. Also known as a WiFi pineapple attack or “evil twin” hotspot, some hackers set up fake WiFi networks with legitimate names to lure unsuspecting users into connecting to them. Once connected, users unknowingly expose their data to hackers and are vulnerable to data theft and manipulation.

Malicious actors create extremely convincing network names for fake WiFi networks. Anyone who regularly connects to public WiFi networks is at risk of falling for this type of trap. 

How Hackers Target You on Public WiFi

While we've already described specific threats you might encounter while using public WiFi, here's some additional information about how hackers manage to exploit vulnerabilities in public WiFi networks. Warning: we're about to get a little technical, so if your eyes gloss over, feel free to jump to the next section which is all about how to avoid these risks.

Sniffing Traffic

Hackers use specialized software and tools to capture and view information as it is passed within a network. These tools, known as traffic sniffers, packet sniffers, or network analyzers, enable attackers to intercept data transmitted via an unencrypted internet connection and then use that data for nefarious purposes. 

Exploiting Network Security Flaws

Cyber criminals target public WiFi networks due to potential vulnerabilities, including outdated encryption protocols and inadequate authentication methods. These weaknesses make implementing hacking tools like the traffic sniffers described above easier.

Using Phishing Tactics

Many public WiFi users don't think twice about using login credentials or transmitting sensitive information while using a free WiFi network. Unlike a fake WiFi network, which deceives users at the point of connection, a phishing scam tricks users into voluntarily divulging sensitive information. For example, in one common phishing scam, hackers redirect users to a fake online banking login page in the hope of obtaining banking details and accessing their accounts.

If you fall for one of these phishing tactics, attackers might also use your personal information (phone number, email address) to launch additional phishing attacks and scam attempts.

Being aware of potential threats will help you avoid becoming a victim, and taking proactive security measures will further protect your data while using public WiFi.

Best Practices to Stay Safe on Public WiFi

After reading about all the dangers of public WiFi above, you might be feeling unsafe at your local coffee shop. Not to worry – with a few simple preventative measures, you can avoid these risks.

Use a Hotspot

The best way to avoid the dangers of public WiFi is to avoid using public WiFi access points altogether, especially unsecured ones. Using mobile data and a personal mobile hotspot instead of free WiFi makes your network connection more secure, and your information will not be exposed to attackers.

Mobile data providers often offer enhanced security features, including strong encryption protocols and password protection. This means when you create a WiFi hotspot, that hotspot is far less vulnerable to unauthorized access and attacks than a standard coffeeshop's public WiFi network.

To use a hotspot instead of public WiFi, you'll need a mobile data plan that offers personal hotspots and enough data to handle the activities you want to do while using your hotspot. Be mindful of your cell phone plans' terms and limitations to avoid overage charges, especially if you use your hotspot for data-heavy activities like streaming or gaming.

Here’s how to set up and switch on a hotspot on your device:

How to Set Up a Hotspot on Your Apple Device

  1. Navigate to the "cellular" option in the iOS settings. 
  2. Activate the "personal hotspot" by toggling its slider to the on position. 
  3. If you wish to permit other devices to connect, enable the "allow others to join" option.

How to Set Up a Hotspot on Your Android Device

  1. To configure a hotspot on an Android device, access the settings menu and long-press the "mobile hotspot" icon to activate it. 
  2. You can find the name of your device’s hotspot in your device's WiFi settings.
  3. To allow others to join your hotspot, you’ll have to share the password you chose for it.

How to Set Up a Hotspot on Your Google Device

  1. To set up a hotspot on your Google device, open your phone's Settings app.
  2. Tap Network & internet Hotspot & tethering, then WiFi hotspot.
  3. Turn on the WiFi hotspot.
  4. To see or change a hotspot setting, like the name or password, tap it.

Using VPNs

If your phone can't make a hotspot, or you don't have hotspot data on your cell phone plan, another option is using a virtual private network (VPN). A VPN is a mechanism for establishing a protected, private network connection while using a public network. You could think of a VPN as a way to create a secure "tunnel" between your device and the websites you're interacting with on public WiFi.

So, does a VPN protect you on public WiFi? Yes! When you connect to a VPN, your IP address is disguised, and all data transmitted from your device is encrypted. This prevents hackers from intercepting your private information using traffic sniffers or other tools we mentioned above. To get started, find a reputable VPN provider, such as NordVPN or Surfshark, and download their mobile app. Note that most reputable VPN providers charge a monthly subscription fee.

Update Your Devices

This is a general best practice tip for cybersecurity, but it also applies to public WiFi safety. Device updates from iOS and Android contain important software patches and security updates designed to protect you from cybersecurity threats like those you might encounter on unsecured networks.

By promptly installing updates, you're addressing known vulnerabilities, shoring up your device's defenses, and reducing the risk of exploitation.

Avoid Sensitive Transactions

It's one thing to do a simple Google search or hop on Wikipedia while using public WiFi. However, certain online activities, such as banking and shopping, expose you to additional risk. To protect sensitive data, stick to secure, encrypted networks for tasks like banking, shopping, file sharing, and other activities involving sensitive accounts and information.

The Bottom Line

Despite the fact that many people use public WiFi every day, it can be risky at best and dangerous at worst. Because public WiFi networks aren't always secured with the latest encryption protocols, users are vulnerable to threats like man-in-the-middle attacks, malware, and phishing. The best way to avoid these dangers and protect your personal data is to avoid public WiFi and find other ways to stay connected.

So, the ultimate question isn't really, "Is public WiFi safe?" It's more like, "Why would I use public WiFi when there are better, safer alternatives?"

Navi's Plan Finder is a great resource for finding mobile plans with sufficient hotspot data, helping you stay online without compromising security. Our customized recommendations allow you to compare pricing and perks from top carriers like Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and more.

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