When you’re out and about and running up against your cellular data limit, there’s nothing quite as inviting as a sign indicating that free WiFi is available. In the age of ubiquitous broadband internet everyone is expected to be constantly connected for both personal and business communications, and public WiFi can be exceedingly convenient when you need a quick connection.
But things are never as good as they seem, and the convenience of free WiFi often comes with signifiant security risks. Whether it’s via malicious hackers looking to steal your valuable data for nefarious purposes or marketing organizations gathering your info to bombard you with spam, conducting your normal online business through a public WiFi network is a risky endeavor that should only be approached with caution.
The dangers of malicious access points
Many public WiFi networks share the same or similar names, and they are often generic terms such as, “public WiFi” or the name of an internet provider. In order to exploit this, many hackers take advantage of how easy it is to setup their own network with a similar name, hoping to trick people into logging into their portal instead of the official one. Once you do, they can monitor and track any information on your device, including login credentials and personal information.
Network sniffing puts your data at risk
Even if you’re on a valid WiFi network, it doesn’t prevent hackers from intercepting your data. With the help of a simple application, anyone who is on the same WiFi network as you can monitor all traffic on that channel. Even if the network is protected by a password, hackers can still steal your data if they know the password (and many businesses use the same WiFi password for all customers). Many cybercriminals are even able to decode network passwords if they aren’t strong enough.
Non-malicious data gathering is increasingly common
Although it’s a less serious threat, non-malicious data gathering is a frustrating and widespread practice that has proliferated along with the rise of public WiFi networks. Generally, these attempts involve tracking website activity, trying to gain access to social media profiles, discovering the user’s location, and using cookies for targeted ads.
Tips to protect yourself on public WiFi networks
If you’re going to be doing a significant amount of activity on public WiFi networks, it’s probably best to use a VPN service. A VPN uses encryption to shield your data from the source of the WiFi network and anyone who is trying to steal data via sniffing. If your company doesn’t utilize a VPN there are several services that now offer personal access. If you are going to be browsing without a VPN, it’s best to confine your activity to sites that don’t require login information, and always make sure to verify the correct network name with the establishment before you log on.
For the latest info on how to stay safe and secure in our hyper-connected world, check out the Great Lakes Computer blog.