Free public Wi-Fi has become a lifeline for people on the go or professionals that travel for work, whether it’s in the airport, hotel, or cafes. But convenience and connectivity come at a very high price. Public Wi-Fi networks, especially free ones, are not secure and can be easily be hacked. Users on these networks should be wary that their browsing habits or login information could be an open session for snooping hackers.
There are several steps you can take to be safer on public Wi-Fi. It’s pretty common for a Wi-Fi network to ask for some personal details before letting you log on. This is typically seen in coffee shops and airports where the network requests an email address and possibly other contact details, sometimes even phone numbers. Consider using a second throwaway burner email account for signing up for such free Wi-Fi is a good habit so your regular email doesn’t get inundated with updates and promotional emails from coffee shops.
Take special care when selecting a public Wi-Fi spot too. You may open up the connections to find a dozen options available, many with similar names. Make sure you are connecting to the official network provided by the business or location you are in. It’s easy for eavesdroppers to create fake networks with legitimate-looking names that will only be used for snooping on your browsing or stealing your data.
Having said that, just because the network is the official one offered by the business does not mean it’s fully safe. It can still be infiltrated by malicious actors. There is a litany of unscrupulous software out there that makes snooping on open Wi-Fi very easy as well as carrying out Man-in-the-Middle attacks (MiTM), where data is intercepted and altered in transit before hitting its destination. Programs like Wireshark and copycat software make it unnervingly easy for hackers access and snoop on your confidential data
Once you’re connected, you should be careful with what sites you visit and stick to the ones that are secure or are at least more secure than others. Check out the certificates the sites offer to satisfy the genuineness of the website. If you’re unsure about how protected a site is, check its address bar to see if it is using HTTPS (Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure). HTTPS is a more robust version of HTTP where the communication has been encrypted with Transport Layer Security (TLS). This is usually illustrated by a green padlock symbol in the address bar, though that may depend on what browser you are using. Be wary of each site you visit on public Wi-Fi and stick to the ones you know are making a strong effort at security.
Without protection, your login information, financial information, and personal data like photos, videos, and documents can be potentially at risk of getting stolen. You should also enable two-factor authentication on all your accounts. This creates a two-step process for signing in; first with your regular password and then a one-off code that is sent to your mobile device by SMS. This creates yet another barrier for hackers who are trying to break into your accounts.
These are simple best practices that you should adhere to but there is still much more to do. Public Wi-Fi is very convenient but it is still a long way off from being truly efficient yet safe.
Take no chances, use a VPN
For greater protection, users should turn to a VPN (virtual private network) for a more rounded protection.
It will not provide 100% security – nothing does – but coupled with the best practices listed above, you will have a much better chance of staying secure.
VPNs have many uses, from accessing geoblocked content to hiding your real IP addresses but added protection on public Wi-Fi is another primary reason that people may use VPN services. Think of it as your frontline defenses against any attacks or breaches online.
A VPN will take your internet traffic and funnel it through its own encrypted servers, adding a protective layer to your browsing that otherwise wouldn’t exist. This is especially important when accessing sites that don’t use HTTPS. In general, we would advise against logging into sensitive accounts like online banking or using payment cards on public Wi-Fi, but if you do, you should definitely be connected to a VPN.
Also, the operators of a public Wi-Fi hotspot have control over what sites can be accessed. You have likely found yourself in a café and clicked a link of a YouTube video, only to find that it is blocked. Being connected to a VPN while on the hotspot can help overcome these kinds of restrictions using the same methods that VPN users employ for working around geoblocks.
What VPN will you need?
The VPN market is flooded with providers offering different subscription services and free services. We recommend that you opt for a paid service with a good reputation. You get what you pay for after all.
Each VPN provider promises greater protection than its competitors and sometimes these promises can be pretty lofty and maybe even unrealistic.
There are several things to consider when choosing a VPN. Firstly, using public Wi-Fi is just one aspect that makes VPNs popular.
What encryption do they use? The standard you should expect is 256-bit encryption. For example, ExpressVPN, which is one of the more popular VPN providers out there, uses 256-bit encryption to protect its users’ traffic and browsing habits. It also provides a 24-hour support helpline for users as well as live chat features – ideal for people on the go after they encounter any problems.
Not all VPNs can offer the same features but plenty of services make big promises so it can be easy to be duped. Along with strong encryption protocols and helpful customer support services around the clock, a VPN needs to have the right amount of servers in the optimum locations that make sense for you. Lag can still be an issue when connecting to a far-flung server. You may want to connect to a server in another country to hide your own details but not experience any slowdowns in your connectivity. You’ll need to pick a server nearby.
IPVanish is another popular VPN option for travelers and regular public Wi-Fi users. It has unlimited bandwidth and 24/7 customer services but no live chat feature. Its connections are generally reliable but if you find yourself with technical issues in an airport, you may be waiting a couple of hours for help.
Your VPN connection needs to be stable. Wi-Fi is usually quite patchy so you want a VPN that doesn’t drop off too easily. If your VPN connection ever breaks, your personal data could be exposed immediately.
To get around this, some VPN providers have a feature called a “kill switch”. The kill switch is like a safety net for when things go wrong. If your VPN connection drops off, it will take matters into its own hands. Instead of switching back to the regular internet connection (which is usually the case), the VPN kill switch will kill off the internet connection entirely. The kill switch takes no chances.
Several VPN providers have kill switch features including Private Internet Access, HideMyAssVPN, and TorGuard. If you are already using a VPN that doesn’t have a kill switch there are ways around this. VPNetMon is a free software that will close certain programs you are running if the VPN connection drops off. Similarly, VPN Watcher is a freemium monitoring tool for your VPN connections. These are convenient options but if you are buying a VPN service for the first time, we would recommend that you choose one with a kill switch built in from the beginning.
With all the risks now known, using public Wi-Fi may sound like a nightmare but it doesn’t have to be that way. Your approach to public Wi-Fi doesn’t need to be any different from your general approach to good personal online security. Stay wary of risks at all time, be suspicious of links, and employ the right software like VPNs to guard against threats.