How to stay safe on public Wi-Fi

Last edited: May 11, 2020
Reading time: 12 minutes, 55 seconds

Wi-Fi offers a wireless connection between different devices. Most of us use it every day. You might use it at home to print something with your wireless printer. You might use it at work to gain access to the internet network. Or you might even use it in a restaurant to connect to their internet connection. The latter is a free public Wi-Fi network. This type of Wi-Fi connection poses the biggest treat to your privacy and safety. However, it would be good to protect your devices, regardless of the type of Wi-Fi connection.

You can read everything you need to know about the dangers of connecting to a Wi-Fi network. Moreover, this article describes the solution of a VPN and some additional protection measures you might want to take.

The risks of public Wi-Fi

Free public WiFi is everywhere; in restaurants, on trains, at the airport. These free hotspots offer you the possibility to be connected to the internet anytime, anywhere, even during your holiday or when you are on the road. Want to quickly check your email or post holiday photos on social media while abroad? You can easily go to a beach bar and connect to their internet connection and read your email. This seems harmless, but there’s a risk hackers can get hold of your password via such an unsecured network.

Hacking a public WiFi network is very easy and it is important for your internet safety that you do not connect to every network. While you are  surfing, a hacker may be able to steal personal data that is used for identity fraud without you noticing. This is very easy and fast. It is important to be aware of the dangers of a public Wi-Fi network. Below we will explain how your personal information is at risk of being hacked. We will discuss the different tactics that hackers use. You will read what threats there are to your data security when you use these different networks. Be prepared and don’t fall for it!

Fake Public Wi-Fi

Safe Wifi SmartphoneHacking people with the help of a free public Wi-Fi network is child’s play. In this day and age, we all want to be connected at all time. Free public Wi-Fi networks offer us an easy way to stay connected when we are on the road. However, it is essential to your internet safety that you don’t connect to just any network.

Hackers will go to a public space where there are a lot of people looking for Wi-Fi. They create a hotspot, offering free Wi-Fi to unsuspecting strangers. Of course they do not call these networks “Hacker001” or “Givemeyourlogin” but they give them trustworthy names. Since there are no restrictions on the type of name you can give to a hotspot, hackers can use the names of mobile network providers. Sometimes they even pose as the Wi-Fi network of a restaurant or café nearby. For instance, they could call their network “Starbucks Free Wi-Fi” and set up near a Starbucks. With these methods they hardly arise suspicion with the average passer-by.

When you connect to the hacker’s network, they can see everything you do on your device. Moreover, if you login to Facebook or your email they will see your login information and your password. You can imagine what they can do with that information.

Because this type of hacking is so easy and profitable a lot of criminals have started doing it. Rembember you won’t recognize a hacker when you’re working on your laptop in a lunchroom, because they might look just like you!

This is why it is important to never connect to a public Wi-Fi hotspot without taking the proper precautions.

Man in the middle attack

Trustworthy networks where you have to enter a password might seems safer. While they are safer in the sense that the above mentioned trick won’t work, you are still vulnerable to hackers. Often there are a lot of people on these public networks, which increases the change that one of them has criminal intentions. Moreover, big public networks don’t change their password as often, which poses a similar threat.

But even if the hacker doesn’t know the password he or she can still hack devices connected to a public Wi-Fi network. It has been shown time and time again that Wi-Fi networks have large security leaks. This is not necessarily the fault of the person who put up the Wi-Fi. Often these are general problems with the Wi-Fi protocols that have nothing to do with actions of the user.

It is more likely that hackers will target larger networks as apposed to your home network. Many different devices will be connected to a large public network at any time. Thus, a hacker can obtain more data at the same time.

A tactic hackers often use to intercept data from people in the same network is known as Man in the middle. It is a cyber attack where a hacker gets in between you and your online activities. Hackers intercept communication and can capture and view incoming and outgoing data in this way. They can for example get between you and your online banking or between you and your work emails.

The most common targets of Man in the middle attacks are:

  • websites of banks
  • websites of webshops
  • Other websites where you need to enter login details to access your account or credit card information

Another variant is the Man in the browser attack, where a hacker installs malicious software in your browser to intercept data traffic. This way, hackers can easily spy on a large number of systems.

Packet Sniffing

Cybercriminals sometimes use specific software programs to intercept data. With certain software it is possible to intercept packets sent over the network. These so-called packet sniffers are used by network administrators to monitor digital traffic to and from a company network.

It will not surprise you that hackers have also discovered these packet sniffers. They use this software to intercept sensitive information and engage in illegal activities. A hacker stores all data sent between you and the insecure internet connection.

Is your Home Wi-Fi Network safe?

You might think the home Wi-Fi network you set up is different from these public networks and a lot safer. Well, it is true that it is securer than the public networks previously mentioned. However, your home network isn’t completely secure either. Weaknesses are constantly being exposed. Whenever the manufacturers develop new security measures it doesn’t take long for hackers to expose the pitfalls. So it is always good to be aware of the fact that you are not completely secure on your “secure Wi-Fi”.

However unlikely it may seem that a hacker would want to get your information specifically, if you do not protect your connection you will be an easy target.

How to stay safe on public Wi-Fi

The above examples show that you should never simply connect to a public wifi network. It is important to take the right precautions first. Below, we give some measures you can take to better secure your data on public Wi-Fi networks.

Secure Wi-Fi with a VPN

VPN on mobileA VPN is the most complete solution to create a secure connection to the internet. You won’t have to deal with hackers, or anyone else, watching over your virtual shoulder. A VPN encrypts all of your internet traffic. Nobody will be able to see what you do online. If they intercept your traffic all they will see is a jumbled mess of characters.

Install a VPN and all of your internet traffic is protected by their software. When you go on the internet you send information to the website you visit. This information is encrypted by the VPN software on your device. All the information sent back by the website is also encrypted, and is only decrypted once it has reached your device again. Even if a hacker manages to get into the Wi-Fi network, they won’t be able to see what you are doing. More importantly, they won’t be able to collect personal information or login and password data.

A VPN is not just a useful tool to prevent hackers from obtaining your personal information. Aside from security it offers you freedom and anonymity. With a VPN you are free to browse the internet without any restrictions. You can bypass online censorship and geographical restrictions on streaming services like Netflix. Moreover, everything you do online is anonymous. Because you take on the IP address of the VPN server you can browse anonymously and download anonymously with a VPN subscription. Nobody will be able to connect your actions online to your internet connection or location. A VPN is the solution to access the internet worry-free on all your devices.

Three Good VPN Providers

A VPN is the best protection against those who want to hack the information on your devices. Read all about the three best providers:

1. ExpressVPN

ExpressVPN is definitely one of the better VPN providers out there. They have a large amount of servers in different countries and offer fast and stable connections. Their user-friendly applications and great customer service make sure everybody can use their services.

ExpressVPN is at the higher end of the price spectrum but that can be expected with the great quality they offer. A perfect service to protect your devices when you use a Wi-Fi network! Read more about this high quality service in our full ExpressVPN guide.

ExpressVPN
Our pick
Our pick
Deal:
3 months for free with a one-year subscription
9.5
  • Very easy to use VPN
  • Perfect for anonymous browsing, downloading, and streaming (i.e. Netflix)
  • 3000+ servers in 94 countries
Visit ExpressVPN

2. NordVPN

NordVPN is a provider that cares deeply about our safety. They have the best safety protocols in place and do not keep logs. NordVPN has a large offer of servers and great customer support.

Nord VPN offers lots of extra features that heighten the security of your device. A downside to these extra layers of protection can be that they slow down your connection slightly. NordVPN is on the cheaper side for the great security they offer. They are the safest option for going on Wi-Fi networks with your devices. Read everything you would like to know about this super-safe option in our NordVPN test report.

NordVPN
Deal:
Only $3,71 a month for a 2-year subscription
9.1
  • Excellent protection and a large network of servers
  • Nice and pleasing application
  • No logs
Visit NordVPN

3. Proton VPN

There are also VPN providers offering a free VPN connection. We recommend the free version of Proton VPN. Proton VPN offers good software and applications with solid security. The free version has no datalimit.

ProtonVPN Free
7.0
  • Free servers in the Netherlands, Japan and the US
  • No datalimit
  • Speedlimit for the free version
Visit ProtonVPN Free

Anti-malware Software

When you use a VPN you are protected against most types of attacks. Everything you do on the internet is encrypted, so a hacker cannot get your personal information. However, it cannot protect you against viruses and software. When you go on a Wi-Fi network you are more susceptible to viruses and spyware so it would be wise to protect yourself against these dangers with extra measures. This doesn’t have to be difficult but is essential. Most people will protect their computers with anti-malware software. However, some forget that they share the same information on their smartphones and tablets. More and more transactions are now done on our smartphone. Thus, it is essential to download some anti-malware software on your smartphone. There are a lot of free options out there that offer good protections and are really no hassle to install.

HTTPS

https everywhereHTTPS or HyperText Transfer Protocol Secure is the secure version of HTTP. You will probably recognize it because it is added before every internet address you type in. Nowadays, most big companies use HTTPS to secure their website. This is important because a secure connection will make sure your data is safe from hackers. Most of us do not pay attention to the HTTPS when we are browsing the internet. Hackers make use of that by taking down the security when we are not looking, and gathering our personal information.

This can be prevented with an extension for your browser that only allows you to go to HTTPS sites. An example of such an extension is “HTTPS Everywhere”. This way, you will not be able to access sites that are not protected with HTTPS. Thus, the version of the site created by the hacker will not be shown to you. With the use of a VPN and an extention like this, you protect yourself against this type of atttack.

Check the Network

Hackers set up fake networks that are almost indistinguishable from legitimate public Wi-Fi networks. Therefore, before you connect be sure you know whose network you’re connecting to. Read the network name carefully and ask the employee of the company whether the link is legitimate. You can also request the IP address of the provider. Avoid becoming a victim and be critical.

Disable File sharing

Make sure your computer isn’t configured to share acces to files on public networks. You can usually easily disable the file sharing option  in the System Preferences or Control Panel.

File sharing makes it easy for hackers to break into your device. Your best bet is to disable file sharing completely.

Enable your Firewall

Use the Firewall to prevent hackers from gaining unauthorized access to the system. Although a Firewall does not provide full protection, it is important to always enable it. A Firewall creates a virtual wall that helps prevent dangerous or fraudulent traffic entering your network.

Other Important Security Measures

Below we give some simple security measures to safely use public Wi-Fi networks. With these easy to implement tips you can protect yourself against cyber criminals.

  • Tip 1: Disable automatic connection (in the settings of your smartphone, laptop or tablet you can select an option that automatically connects to available WiFi networks. This option ensures that your device connects to available WiFi networks without your validation. We recommend turning this option off).
  • Tip 2: Use 3G / 4G instead of public WiFi networks (do not connect to public WiFi networks and switch to your mobile data)
  • Tip 3: Use two-factor authentication. This requires both a password and a secondary unique code that changes regularly. This makes it difficult for hackers to get at your account because even if they can get your password, they won’t have access to the secundary code.
  • Tip 4: Check if the network has been forgotten (every time you use a public WiFi network, your phone or laptop will remember that network).
  • Tip 5: Do not conduct financial transactions over public Wi-Fi networks.

Final Thoughts

Every Wi-Fi connections, whether it is public or private, poses a threat to the safety of your devices and the personal data on them. Hackers lure you into connecting to their Wi-Fi hotspots or hack protected Wi-Fi networks. They can trick you into thinking you are on a safe network and gather all your personal information.

A VPN is a good solution to this problem. The VPN software on your device encrypts your internet traffic and the hacker will no longer be able to steel any of your personal information. However, if someone wants to do you harm, they can still infect your Wi-Fi network with a virus or spyware. Thus, it is important to protect your devices with anti-malware software as well.

The only other solution would be to not use any public networks and make sure you only use 3G/4G network to connect to the internet. However, this is hardly reasonable in this day and age. Thus, the best protection you can get on a Wi-Fi network, is by using a VPN and installing anti-malware software.

Tech journalist
Tove has been working for VPNoverview since 2017 as a journalist covering cybersecurity and privacy developments. Since 2019 she is VPNoverview.com's cybersecurity news coordinator.

More articles from the ‘Secure Browsing’ section

Comments
Leave a comment
Leave a comment