We’re all familiar with Wi-Fi, and the convenience it affords. Technically, Wi-Fi refers to a technology that enables computers and other devices to connect to the Internet and communicate wirelessly. Wi-Fi is configured using a wireless adaptor to create a “hotspot.” Once a connection is established, users within range of the hotspot can connect to the Internet network.
Wireless networks are located either in the home, which is generally referred to as a “closed network,” or in public places, which can be open or closed depending on the security settings. Public Wi-Fi is often unsecured, posing security risks to users.
Where Can You Find Public Wi-Fi Networks?
Public Wi-Fi networks are not hard to find. They are prevalent in locations around the world and you encounter them in your day-to-day life and during travel. Some common locations for these networks are:
- Coffee shops and cafes
- Restaurants and bars
- Airports and airplanes (in-flight Wi-Fi)
- Other transportation areas, such as trains, subways and stations
- Hotels and hostels
- Malls and shopping centers
- Public parks, squares and other public locations
- Tourist attractions, commercial hubs
- Home Wi-Fi networks, if left unsecured
There are over 100,000 unsecured public Wi-Fi hotspots around the world, with reports that one out of four are completely unsecured. Mumbai holds the title for the largest public Wi-Fi city, with over 500 active hotspots and another 700 promised by May of 2017. Other major metro areas have large public Wi-Fi presence, such as New York City where all subway stations will have Wi-Fi coverage by the end of this year. In Europe, there is an initiative called WIFIEU, which plans to extend free Wi-Fi all over the European Union in public places.
Why Are Public Wi-Fi Networks Insecure?
An unsecured Wi-Fi network is any network that does not require you to enter a password or login credentials to use the network. These “open” networks also involve unencrypted connections, leaving users at great risk. These hotspots are an easy target for hackers and nefarious people trying to steal login passwords, credit card information, content of communications or other personal details. These also pose other threats, such as man-in-the-middle attacks, Wi-Fi sniffing and malware.
- Hackers/Snoops: Hackers or snoops can infiltrate unsecured Wi-Fi networks and use them to collect personal details or sensitive login information. Think hacking is hard? Think again. Hacking is easier and easier these days, with the help of tools like packet analyzers.
- Malware: Unsecured Wi-Fi networks can be used to inject malware into devices connected to the network. Malware is very dangerous, as it could give an attacker access to everything on your device. This includes files or photos, and can go as far as microphone activation for eavesdropping.
- Man-in-the-Middle Attacks: A man-in-the-middle attack occurs when a malicious actor intercepts communication between two people and inserts themselves into the conversation. The criminal can then access information being sent and intercept personal data – all without the senders or recipients knowing. This type of attack allows for eavesdropping, exploiting real-time transactions, conversations and data transfers allowing the hacker to steal personal information.
- Rogue Hotspots (Fake Networks): These are hotspots that are set up by criminals, using a name close to that of the actual, legitimate Wi-Fi hotspot. These hotspots are created to trick users into connecting, thinking they are using a legitimate network at a coffee shop, for example. When you connect to one of these networks you become vulnerable to hacking/snooping conducted by the owner of the fake network.
What Information is at Risk on Wi-Fi Networks?
Now that you know unsecured public Wi-Fi networks are an easy target for criminals or snoops trying to steal your personal details, it’s important to understand what exactly they can get their hands on – and how revealing this data can be. When using these networks, the following information may be at risk:
- Websites you visit
- Personal communications, such as emails, chats and messages
- Whom you are communicating with
- Your location
- Files you send, such as photos
- Passwords and other sensitive information
- Login credentials for various websites, such as banking websites
All this isn’t just hype! There are reports of users connecting to unsecured Wi-Fi networks around the globe, often with devastating consequences for their users.
- Tourist Attractions: Some of the most unsecured Wi-Fi networks can be found at popular tourist attractions and destinations around the world. These include popular places such as Times Square, Notre Dame and Disneyland Paris.
- Onboard Airplanes: Last year, there was quite a stir when a journalist was hacked while using in-flight Wi-Fi onboard a plane. The hacker revealed details of what the journalist was working on, compromising the story as well as alarming all who heard about it. This incident proved just how quick and easy hacking in-flight Wi-Fi was.
- Public Buses: The city of Sydney Australia recently announced plans to offer Wi-Fi onboard all public buses. But this Wi-Fi comes with a catch – it will collect and sell personal user information. While this risk doesn’t occur because the Wi-Fi is insecure, it’s another privacy violation that users need to be aware of on Wi-Fi.
Awareness is Not Enough
According to a study conducted by the Identity Theft Resource Center, about 40% of people were unconcerned about using public Wi-Fi. Of those who were worried, less than half took steps to secure their connection on these networks. This is very concerning, considering the activities that most frequently take place on public Wi-Fi:
- Checking your email (this includes login)
- Using social media channels (sharing, communicating)
- Viewing banking accounts or financial information
What’s even more concerning is peoples’ willingness to use these networks, despite being aware of the risks. A McAfee poll revealed that a large percentage of people – 38% – still opt to use free unsecured Wi-Fi. Combine that with a statistic from the AARP’s Convenience Versus Security report that “A quarter of the adults who use the Internet access it via public Wi-Fi once a week or more,” and you get an idea of how common using unsecured networks is.
All of this is very unsettling, especially for those who have never considered the risks of public Wi-Fi before. But you don’t have to avoid WI-Fi networks or accept the inevitability of privacy risks – there are things you can do!
While there are several ways to protect yourself when using a Wi-Fi network, one way beats the rest – using a VPN. The most important thing you can do every time you connect is to use a VPN. A VPN encrypts your Internet connection to secure it and protect your privacy. When connecting with a VPN, no one – not the Internet service provider, the business/network owner nor any third-party hacker or snoop – can see the information you send over the network. When using Wi-Fi with a VPN your privacy and security is protected at all times.