Here’s Why Public Wi-Fi Sucks

Here’s Why Public Wi-Fi Sucks
Apple emojis. Image: Zachariah Kelly/Gizmodo Australia

Yesterday morning, my editor accused me of being an absolute Zoomer, happy to surrender my soul and data to public Wi-Fi.

I didn’t really see the problem with public Wi-Fi until I started looking into it, half dealing with her ‘Zoomer-shaming’ and half dealing with the privacy nightmare that public Wi-Fi can be.

But should you be concerned? Is this one of those “If you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear” things?

No, it’s not. Keep yourself safe. Let us explain.

Is public Wi-Fi unsafe?

Here’s Kaspersky on public Wi-Fi:

“The biggest threat to free Wi-Fi security is the ability for the hacker to position himself between you and the connection point. So instead of talking directly with the hotspot, you’re sending your information to the hacker, who then relays it on.

While working in this setup, the hacker has access to every piece of information you’re sending out on the Internet: important emails, credit card information and even security credentials to your business network. Once the hacker has that information, he can — at his leisure — access your systems as if he were you.”

So, hypothetically, a hacker could position themselves in a public space, set up a connection to a public Wi-Fi access point (that you could connect to with your phone) and steal your data with your device willingly connected to said access point.

As Kaspersky goes on to say, what the hacker can do with this data is quite far-reaching. Your computer system could be directly accessed and malware could be distributed to computers on the local network. Your passwords could be compromised and your bank account could be accessed.

Hacking is obviously an extreme scenario (though there have been some serious hacks recorded), one that can be mitigated by doing the right things. Ultimately, it can be avoided entirely by having a capable mobile broadband or phone plan with enough data, allowing you to be self-sufficient when it comes to internet needs.

There’s data harvesting too

Hackers aren’t your only problem on public Wi-Fi. While a Wi-Fi connection can’t give you a cookie (on its own), the welcome page for said public Wi-Fi system can leave you with a cookie that tracks your data and searches across the internet.

With that in mind, whatever you do on a public Wi-Fi network can be spied on by the network provider. If you’re sharing sensitive data, it’s  good practice to keep it off public networks.

How to stay safe on public Wi-Fi

Don’t get us wrong, we don’t want to scare you away from using public Wi-Fi, we just want you to be as secure as possible.

So here’s how to keep yourself safe on public Wi-Fi connections.

  • Get a VPN: By using a VPN, your data becomes a not-so easy target for a hacker, even if the public Wi-Fi connection has been compromised.
  • Get some antivirus software: Good antivirus software should be able to protect you from malware infection.
  • Use SSL connections: As Kaspersky says, “Enable the ‘Always Use HTTPS’ option on websites that you visit frequently, or that require you to enter some kind of credentials.” If the website you need to access has a login portal, it likely has a HTTPS encryption option, which should make it harder for a hacker to steal your data through your login information.
  • Keep your Wi-Fi turned off: Although you might have your device tuned to not connect to public Wi-Fi hotspots, having your Wi-Fi turned off when you’re on the go prevents this in a dead-bolt way, so there’s no chance of your tech going rogue, connecting to a dodgy hotspot that you might have connected to before, and getting compromised by a hacker. Your battery should last a little longer too.
  • Get mobile broadband (or a phone plan with lots of data): the best way to avoid compromised security is to not risk it to begin with. Try to use your own data when accessing the internet in public and minimise what Wi-Fi you connect to outside of trusted connections (like your business and your home Wi-Fi).
  • Avoid sensitive data on public networks: Avoid entering passwords and accessing your banking information when you’re on a public network.
  • Avoid dodgy connections: If a public Wi-Fi connection looks dodgy, or there’s a duplicate connection available, try to avoid it. It could well be a compromised connection.