Staying Safe Using Public Wi-Fi

Oct 5, 2019

As more and more aspects of our lives happen in the digital part of an ever-connected world, it becomes increasingly harder to say “no” to being online. In fact, the inability to connect could leave some of us with a sense of unease. So much so that we now use terms such as FOBO, an acronym for fear of being offline.

But every internet user — that’s over half of the world’s population — should be aware the internet isn’t exactly safe. Staying on top of cybercrime trends is something we should all be doing. At the very least, however, we should all learn about the habits and behaviours that put us in danger. Connecting to public Wi-Fi is usually one of them.

Threat Models and Public Wi-Fi

Here’s a quick lesson in threat assessment: before you do anything that could be even remotely dangerous or risky, it would be a good idea to figure out the threat models you will be facing.

If you’re living in a country with an oppressive political system, the threat model would be the government eavesdropping on you. They might be working with your ISP, and they might look for sensitive data they could use to blackmail, threaten, or jail you.

Slightly less sinister is the threat model you face every time when visiting a website — the website owner might try to follow you online. They might try to figure out your location and gather information about your identity. It doesn’t matter that they’re probably doing it to serve you ads — if you view it as an invasion of privacy, it’s a threat.

On public Wi-Fi, the threat you’re most likely to face is the lone hacker going after your personal information, login credentials, or digital properties such as image and video files. Doesn’t look as bad as an oppressive government? It’s not, but if someone gets enough info to steal your identity, they can cause damage to your life measuring in thousands of dollars and months spent trying to fix it.

What Kinds of Attacks Loom on Public Wi-Fi?

Let’s say you know there’s a hacker trying to do some harm to you, and they’re waiting at your favourite coffee spot. What kind of attacks can they perform? Well, they have plenty of options:

  • The Man-in-the-Middle attack — the hacker will place themselves in between your device and the router so that when you connect your device to the internet, the hacker has access to all the traffic.
  • Unencrypted Wi-Fi and Snooping — if the router you’re connecting to doesn’t have encryption, it’s left wide open to hacker attacks. Hackers can use that vulnerability to get a lot of your information, including instant messages you send and receive and email accounts and passwords.
  • Fake, malicious hotspots — hackers can create a public network that looks the same as a network you’d trust. But it’s not — it’s a rogue hotspot that will trick you (or your device) to connect in order to gain access to your information. 

That’s without mentioning that hackers might use public Wi-Fi to push malware, causing issues ranging from ransom attacks to identity theft and property destruction. As far as unsafe behaviour goes, it looks like using public Wi-Fi should be near the top of the list.

How to Stay Safe Using Public Wi-Fi?

So, should you never again connect to public Wi-Fi? That would be best, although probably not the most plausible scenario. At least some of the people who use public Wi-Fi do it out of a genuine need to connect. If you’re one of them, removing this type of internet access from your palette of options might put you in a disadvantageous position.

What you need, in that case, is a way to continue using public Wi-Fi while staying safe. The good news is that there’s plenty you can do to improve your digital safety when dealing with public Wi-Fi networks. Here’s a five-point plan to help you stay safe:

1.  Start Using a VPN

VPNs, or virtual private networks, are networks your devices connect to achieve a range of things, including to appear as if you’re browsing in a different country. Most importantly, they encrypt the communication between you and the network, so that not even your ISP can see what you’re doing. This encryption makes it significantly more difficult to act as a man in the middle while you’re browsing the internet.

2.  Only Connect via SSL

If a VPN protects your access point to a safe tunnel, an SSL connection protects your exit point. It protects the communication between you (or the VPN) and the website you’re visiting, which is an awesome extra layer of security. You can force browsers and websites to only connect via a safe, encrypted connection.

3.  Limit the Vulnerable Data You Use

Even with all the precautions taken, you should get your use of personally identifiable information to the minimum when you’re connected on public Wi-Fi. No passwords, no banking information, no social security or government ID numbers.

4.  Turn Off Auto-Connect

Don’t let your devices connect automatically to public networks. Rogue networks can easily mimic the public networks you usually connect to. You could have someone rummaging through your data without you even knowing you’ve connected to a public network.

5.  Don’t File-Share

It shouldn’t be too difficult to turn file-sharing off when you’re connected to a public network. This is a feature you should enable only when on a trusted private or work network. So, say “no” to file-sharing, but say “yes” to firewalls and limited app connectivity.

We’ve all been in the position when using public Wi-Fi looked appealing to us. Not everyone can afford enough data on their cell plan. Sometimes, it’s the signal coverage that’s failing us. Either way, it’s great that we can occasionally connect to the internet for free. Or at least it’s great if we’re capable of protecting ourselves from the many dangerous these networks can pose. One bad connection can potentially ruin your life for years to come, and there are very few things that are worthy of all that trouble. Remember that it’s better to be safe than to have something to regret and do what you can to make yourself a tough target for the hackers.