What are the Risks of Using Wi-Fi?
Most people need to connect to a wireless network every day to work, study, check the latest news and weather, and binge-watch exciting TV dramas on popular streaming sites.
However, when you connect to an unencrypted Wi-Fi network in a public place, you risk exposing your devices to malicious attacks from hackers and cybercriminals. These people can use unprotected and insecure Wi-Fi networks to steal your computer’s files, access your personal data, and distribute malware onto your device.
When you’re aware of the risks of using free and unencrypted Wi-Fi networks, you can take suitable measures to protect your laptop, tablet, or phone against security breaches.
What Exactly is Public Wi-Fi?
Most of the major Wi-Fi risks tend to occur on public networks rather than on encrypted and secure private networks. Anytime you’re using free Wi-Fi in a busy, populated place, like an airport lounge, café, city center, mall, or hotel lobby, this is a public network.
The main problem with public Wi-Fi networks is that they don’t normally require any form of authentication or password to access. This might make it easy for you to get online quickly and effectively, but it also increases the security risks: anyone can connect to the same free network and have access to personal data on your laptop, tablet, or phone.
Call Your Credit and Debit Card Issuers
While it may be tempting to cancel your cards straight away to prevent thieves from accessing your funds, it’s wiser to contact your card issuer and let them know the situation first. This is because canceling cards can start processes that could leave you in a mess financially, as well as compromise your credit score.
What are the Specific Risks of Using Public Wi-Fi?
There are several ways an experienced hacker, cybercriminal, or identity thief can steal your sensitive data when you’re both using the same public network.
Man-in-the-middle (MITM) attacks
This type of attack occurs when the hacker sits between your device and either the network’s connection point or another device you are sharing information with. For instance, if you’re sending private data to a friend's or employee’s computer, the thief can position themselves in the middle of this exchange and effectively intercept this information.
If you run a business where some of your employees work remotely in cafés or public libraries, you should be aware of the risks associated with MITM attacks. Cybercriminals can use this sneaky method to access your company’s login details as well as your employees’ personal and financial information.
Fake or rogue public Wi-Fi networks
Sometimes, attackers will set up what’s called a rogue Wi-Fi hotspot: this is a network that is designed to look like an official public Wi-Fi network. Hackers will often use a generic name like “Free Wi-Fi” or “Public Wi-Fi” to make you connect to this network when you’re in a public place. If you’re in a café or restaurant, these criminals will adjust the fake network’s title so that it seems more authentic. For example, you might be sitting in a coffeehouse called Beanpot, so the rogue Wi-Fi network will be called something like BeanPot or Bean_pot Wi-Fi.
If you connect to a malicious hotspot, you’ll inadvertently share your personal data with whoever set up the network.
Hackers distributing malware onto your device
When you connect to a public Wi-Fi hotspot and enable file-sharing with other people’s devices on this network, you make it simple for experienced hackers to find security weaknesses on your laptop. Once they’ve found a weakness, they can distribute malware and infected software to your device.
These computer viruses and malicious software programs can rake through your laptop, tablet, or phone and steal private information like bank login details and social media account information. Some particularly destructive types of malware can also delete important files and transmit through all the other devices on the public Wi-Fi network, exposing everyone else to the threat of identity theft.
Snooping and eavesdropping
Hackers will often invest in specialist monitoring software that intercepts transmissions between different devices on the free Wi-Fi network, allowing these criminals to access your recent web history, important login credentials, and vital account information. This illegal practice is called snooping or sniffing.
Attacks over decentralized networks
An ad hoc network is a decentralized wireless hotspot that connects your device directly to another one in the vicinity. When you connect to public Wi-Fi, your laptop or cell phone might also automatically connect to an ad hoc network that a nearby hacker has set up.
Standalone malware attacks
Another one of the Wi-Fi risks is the prevalence of worms. These are highly destructive standalone malware programs that can infect every device on the public Wi-Fi network that you’re using. Worm viruses can jump from laptop to laptop, deleting and changing important files on your device and sapping your system’s bandwidth.
All you need is one person with a security weaknesses device, and you could all be affected by the worm as a result.
How to Avoid Breaches and Attacks on Public Wi-Fi
If you want to avoid these types of cyberattacks when you’re on public Wi-Fi, follow these simple tips.
- 1Download a secure virtual private network (VPN). When you download a VPN, you’re setting up a more secure connection between your device and the network you’re using. This VPN will encrypt your personal internet traffic and hide your IP number and social media or virtual identity when you’re online. Hackers won’t be able to access the sites you’re browsing, and they’ll have difficulty stealing any of your personal data.
- 2Don’t click on links and attachments in emails or texts from anonymous senders. If you receive an email or text message from a stranger or an anonymous sender, be careful not to click on any links or attachments included in that message. It’s quite likely that clicking on this link will introduce malware onto your computer as part of a phishing scam to steal your personal information.
- 3Invest in anti-malware software for your devices. You should invest in a high-quality anti-malware software program that monitors and scans all the files on your computer, removing potentially malicious software from the device.
- 4Turn off your device’s auto-connect and sharing presets. Before you connect to any public Wi-Fi, remember to turn off your device’s auto-connect settings so it won’t automatically connect to a malicious ad hoc network. You should also disable your phone or tablet’s sharing function on the device’s system preferences. This prevents hackers from accessing your files through MITM attacks and eavesdropping.
Many people work in public places, from quiet cafés and public libraries to bookshops and rowdy coffeehouses. Free Wi-Fi has many benefits: you can access the internet without needing to remember complicated login passwords or usernames, and you can work in a bustling and pleasant atmosphere.
However, you need to be aware of the dangers of using Wi-Fi, particularly when you’re in a public place. These networks don’t tend to have the integrated security measures that your private home networks do, so you should take suitable steps to protect your devices from hackers and criminals when you’re next working in public.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Calvin Fellows is a former military security agent and police detective who headed security administration. Calvin is experienced and knowledgeable in all avenues of personal and corporate security, and is dedicated to educating people on how to preempt any physical or cyber security attacks before they happen.
calvin fellows // Security Expert
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