How Safe is Public Wifi?
The short answer is: Not very.
Connecting via public Wifi hot spots is a hazardous business. Regardless of whether you’re connecting via an open network (which is not password protected – like at the mall) or via a secured network (Like when you connect with the daily password at a coffee shop) you are placing yourself in a network environment with unknown users, and essentially becoming vulnerable to them.
Man in the middle Attacks
Any IT guy worth his salt would be able to hack into your un-encrypted messages, your browsing activity, and any passwords and usernames you’re busy sending via that network. These are called “Man-in-the-middle” attacks – because essentially there is a “man in the middle” of you and the site you’re trying to access who is “eavesdropping” on your “conversation”.
Which is not to say you should never use public Wifi – but when you do there are certain common sense measures you can make use of to keep your personal data safe.
Staying safe on public networks:
DO’s of Public Wifi
If you have a choice – always pick a secured network (with password) over an open network (no password).
Make sure you’re connecting to the official network of the establishment you’re visiting. Some man-in-the-middle attackers will set up a Wifi network that looks similar to an official network to get you to connect via their network. For example, your coffee shop’s wifi name may be CuppaJoe1 while the man-in-the-middle has set up a network called CuppaJoe2.
Do switch off your automatically connected apps. Those which you usually only use over Wifi.
Do turn off your Bluetooth.
Do make use of a VPN when browsing via any public connection. This just gives you an added layer of anonymity and security.
Do select “public network” on your laptop or tablet when you connect. Windows will automatically kick in certain background security measures if it knows you’re on a public network, such as turning off file sharing on the network.
Do visit sites which use HTTPS and SSL – Most Websites add a layer of security with the use of HTTPS protocol to support SSL (Secure sockets layer). You will know if the website you’re visiting uses HTTPS if the lock icon and the word “secure” appear in the URL field.
Do turn on your Firewalls and Anti-Virus Software. It is well worth your while to invest in a paid anti-virus and firewall such as ESET. Make sure you have yours installed and activated for an added layer of protection wherever you’re browsing.
DON’Ts of Public Wifi
Do not – under any circumstances – log into your bank or financial institution or any other website that deals with your sensitive personal data such as ID numbers, your home address, or anything else you wouldn’t hand over to a perfect stranger.
Don’t leave your device unattended in public. This may seem like a pretty obvious one, but leaving your phone or laptop charging somewhere out of sight even for a few moments can give opportunists a chance to clone or hack your device.
Don’t shop online over public Wifi – How do you pay for your shopping? With personal financial information. Even if your details are saved to your profile and you’re not re-entering them, they’re there. Someone who knows what they’re doing will be able to grab them.
Common Sense – as always the number one defense against any form of attack is to be vigilant and make use of common sense measures. You wouldn’t walk down a dark ally-way by yourself flaunting your bling, so don’t do it online, either.