Is It Safe to Use Open Public Wi-Fi Hotspots?
With data breaches increasing by the day, it is imperative to keep business and personal information safe and secure. Those who don’t take the necessary precautions risk losing their proprietary and personal data to criminals. Loss of proprietary and personal data can have far-reaching consequences, both for individuals as well as businesses. Apart from financial losses, businesses also risk taking a hit to their reputation.
There are several aspects to data security, and one of the growing areas of concern is mobile security. With the mobile device use prevalent and the practice of bring-your-own-device (BYOD) to the workplace becoming more prominent, it is vital to understand the risks associated with mobility.
Is it safe to use the internet from open public Wi-Fi hotspots?
If you are using an open public Wi-Fi hotspot, you need to be careful. We will take you through what you need to do if you have to use an open public Wi-Fi hotspot – why IT security experts consider public Wi-Fi risky, how to stay safe when using public Wi-Fi, and how a virtual private network (VPN) operates.
Why is public Wi-Fi considered risky?
You don’t think twice when using the internet from your home or office because you know the connection is secure. But that is not the case when you use public Wi-Fi. Therefore, before you start surfing the internet from an open public Wi-Fi hotspot, it is important to know why public Wi-Fi is considered risky.
When you access the internet from public places like airports, hotels, restaurants, shops, etc., you are using public Wi-Fi. We are so used to using these hotspots that we don’t even think twice before connecting to them. While it is fine to connect to public Wi-Fi for checking your social media accounts, you need to think twice before checking your emails or accessing your bank accounts.
There are numerous risks involved if you are using public Wi-Fi. While it might be necessary to brief your team in the office or provide prompt service to your customer, it is vital to understand that these networks offer almost negligible security. That is the reason you need to be careful.
Here are some of the risks of public Wi-Fi, as covered by Norton:
Man-in-the-middle attack –One of the most common threats on public Wi-Fi networks, a man-in-the-middle attack is similar to eavesdropping. When you connect your device to the internet, data from your computer goes to the website or service you access, and it is here that a third person can exploit the vulnerabilities in-between. That means, your private connection is no longer private, and a third person can access your data.
Unencrypted network – When you opt for encryption, the information you send from your computer to the wireless router gets encrypted. It means, the information you send gets coded, and only those having the key to deciphering the code can read the information. In most cases, as a default setting, the encryption is turned off when the router leaves the factory. To enable the encryption, you need to turn it on during the time of the network setup. But if a non-IT person sets up the network, there is no guarantee that he or she turns on the encryption. So, you don’t have a way to find out whether the public Wi-Fi you are using has encryption turned off or on. And, this is again dangerous as the information you share on unencrypted networks is not safe.
Malware distribution – By exploiting the software vulnerabilities, attackers can slip malware on to your computer. A security vulnerability is a security loophole that exists in an operating system or software program. It is easy for hackers to exploit this weakness. They can write a code to target a particular vulnerability and inject the malware on to your device. Your data is at risk if your device gets infected with malware.
Snooping and sniffing – Snooping and sniffing is again a very common risk on public Wi-Fi. Hackers use special software kits and devices that allow them to eavesdrop on Wi-Fi signals. With this technique, hackers can access all your online activities. From the websites you visit and the information you leave on the webpages to getting hold of your login credentials and hijacking your accounts, the attackers get every bit of information they want.
Malicious hotspots – Malicious hotspots are rogue access points that can trick you to connect to them because their name is almost similar to a reputable brand. For example, if you are staying at a Holiday Inn and want to connect to their Wi-Fi network, but you accidentally connect to HoliDay Inn, which is a malicious hotspot. When you connect to this rogue hotspot, attackers can view all your sensitive information.
Staying safe when surfing public Wi-Fi
There are occasions, however, when you have to use open public Wi-Fi.
So, what should you do?
Here is what you can do to stay safe when surfing public Wi-Fi.
Always try to use a trusted Wi-Fi network – It is vital to understand that it is difficult for any public Wi-Fi network to provide foolproof security. That is why it is important to try to connect to a trusted entity like Starbucks. Public Wi-Fi networks like Starbucks are less suspect than an unknown entity. As Wired observes, they’re already profiting from your presence there. Avoid connecting to an unfamiliar network, and when traveling to a new place, always try to connect to known and trusted networks.
Follow Google’s advice – use only HTTPS sites – Google Chrome tells you whether the site you are visiting uses an unencrypted HTTP connection or an encrypted HTTPS connection. For HTTP sites, you can see “Not Secure” on the search bar. Be aware that Chrome is the only web browser that provides this warning.
Try not to use HTTP sites from an open public Wi-Fi network because these are not secure. On secure sites , it is difficult for attackers to access your data that travels between your computer and the website’s server.
Don’t share too much information – If you have to use an open public Wi-Fi network, make sure that you don’t share all your details. Try not to forget the first rule (using a trusted network), but in case you have to use an unknown network, don’t share all your details, such as email address and phone number. Also, avoid signing up for multiple public Wi-Fi networks. It is better to connect to a network that you are already registered with.
Make sure you limit file sharing – While using an open-public Wi-Fi network, ensure that you turn off the seamless file sharing option on your device. For example, if you are using a PC, go to the Network and Sharing Center, then to the Change Advanced Sharing settings, and then turn off the File and Sharing option. If you are using a Mac, go to System Preferences, then go to Sharing, and then unselect everything. After this, go to Finder, then click on AirDrop, and then select Allow me to be discovered by: No One. And, in case you are using iOS, go to the Control Center and find AirDrop, and then turn it off. If you do this, you can keep your files safe because attackers will not be able to get hold of your files, nor can they send you unwanted stuff.
Read the terms and conditions of the network you are signing for – Not an easy thing to do, but if possible, you should check for red flags. When you go through their terms and conditions, you can get to know the type of data they collect during the session and what they intend to do with it. You can do a web search for terms you don’t understand. However, make sure that you don’t promptly install any software the open Wi-Fi network suggests.
Always use a VPN – The best way to protect your data on an open public Wi-Fi network is to install a VPN on your device. When you use a VPN, it encrypts data that you receive or send through a secure server, which means people on the network cannot spy on your data.
How does a VPN work?
Using a VPN is the best way to protect your data on an open public Wi-Fi network.
A VPN disguises your actual IP address and location. It uses encryption and establishes a private, secure channel for your internet use. If you use a VPN, all of your information moves securely from your location to the VPN, your original IP address is masked, and your data exits to the public internet through the VPN server. The use of a VPN makes it extremely difficult for the attacker to trace the data back to you.
The use of a VPN is particularly of help to businesses that need to give their employees remote access to the company server. You can get access to the software and company resources even when you are not in the office.
So, to answer the question, you can safely use Wi-Fi hotspots if you exercise caution and common sense — as well as add the extra layer of protection that a VPN affords. Be aware that this is a less-than-ideal situation, but if it can’t be avoided, we’ve hopefully provided the information you need to identify sketchy hotspots and protect yourself as best as possible. As we always say, knowledge is power!
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