The dangers of public Wi-Fi

March 18, 2016

Why it’s dangerous

If you’re at a restaurant, hotel, library, airport, or gym, public Wi-Fi is a convenient way to connect on the go. But there are some dangers everyone should be mindful of before accessing a public Wi-Fi network.

public wifi

Public Wi-Fi is an easy way for hackers to obtain your information. According to David Maimon, an Assistant Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Maryland, “The major hazard with public Wi-Fi is the fact that all the information you’re transferring between your computer and the computer that you’re accessing is available to everybody on the network.” That means that anything you do on a public network can be accessed by anyone who is looking for it. Whether it’s an important email, credit card information, or passwords, hackers can capture this information without your knowledge.

There are several ways attackers can obtain your personal information.

Man in the middle attacks: Instead of going directly to the computer you are trying to access, anything you do is first routed through the hackers’ network. Maimon points out, “If they use this kind of approach then all the information is accessible to them, it doesn’t matter if you are accessing an HTTPS website, an encrypted website or not.”

Malware: Unlike man in the middle attacks which allow hackers to access information that you’re sending across the Internet, malware can grant access to all the information available on your device, including files and photos. If you have file sharing on, hackers can easily distribute malware to your device.

False networks: Some hackers set up false networks such as “Free Wi-Fi” to entice users to connect. This strategy is especially prevalent in areas where individuals are more likely to be searching for a Wi-Fi connection.

How to protect yourself

Fortunately, there are several preventative measures to keep yourself and your information safe on public Wi-Fi.

  • Use a Virtual Private Network (VPN) to add an extra level of security. Kaspersky Lab, a cybersecurity company, explains how VPNs help protect your data, “Even if a hacker manages to position himself in the middle of your connection, the data here will be strongly encrypted. Since most hackers are after an easy target, they’ll likely discard stolen information rather than put it through a lengthy decryption process.”
  • Ask employees for the name of the Wi-Fi network. Hackers can set up a network name similar to the location where you are. Take the extra step to confirm you are connecting to the right Wi-Fi network.
  • Make sure to forget the network when you are done using it so your device doesn’t automatically connect to it in the future. It’s also a good idea to turn Wi-Fi off if you’re not using it.
  • Don’t access anything with sensitive information while using public Wi-Fi. This includes bank accounts, credit cards, email, and even sites like Facebook. If you log in somewhere and you use the same password for other accounts, the hacker can then sign into your other accounts, too. Another safeguard against this is enabling two-factor authentication which will let you know if someone tries to log in to your account from another device.
  • If you absolutely have to access secure information, use your cellular data instead of public Wi-Fi. And only update your device’s software on a secure network.

Public Wi-Fi is a great resource to take advantage of, and it’s growing across the nation. Just make sure to be extra cautious and not access any sensitive information.



How dangerous is public Wi-Fi? We ask an expert