It’s a dangerous world out there. Hackers are always ready to steal your personal data and governments or businesses may be trying to track your internet activities. Further complicating the problem is the fact that the world seems to be speeding up, so convenience often takes precedence over safety.
What are you supposed to do?
Often the answer is to use public Wi-Fi since it’s almost always free and available. Using public Wi-Fi may not be a huge problem for those who use a laptop but it’s a very serious issue for people who use a mobile device to do most of their daily work. More specifically, mobile users who use public Wi-Fi without taking all the necessary precautions to keep themselves safe.
There’s a laundry list of reasons why you shouldn’t connect to a public Wi-Fi network no matter how convenient it is.
First of all, there are multiple security risks you need to take into account. The majority of people connecting to the internet aren’t taking these risks into consideration and will freely connect to a public Wi-Fi network without hesitation.
Their reasoning for doing so often boils down to a lack of understanding about the very real dangers that could be lurking on public Wi-Fi or they believe that the cybersecurity threats they’ve heard about aren’t real and are just a ploy to get them to spend money on cybersecurity software or services.
It doesn’t take much searching to find organizations like Snapchat and the U.S. Department of Justice that are struggling with security breaches that could potentially have been avoided with some higher quality cybersecurity protocols in place.
The same sort of information-stealing attacks that affect these large organizations can affect individuals too, usually by hacking a company and then stealing their customers’ information.
With all of that said, we can’t deny that occasionally you’ll be forced to connect to public Wi-Fi. You may be out of the house or out of the office. You may even be in another country need quick, convenient access to the internet.
There are so many situations in which you may have no other choice but to use a public Wi-Fi network.
We understand that avoiding connecting to public Wi-Fi for the rest of your life is simply not an option. However, what is an option is knowing the major risks associated with connecting to public Wi-Fi networks and then taking the proper steps to keep yourself safe when you absolutely have to use one.
The number one piece of advice we can give you is to use a VPN service when using public Wi-Fi. We’ve compiled a list of the top Five best VPNs to help you find the best one for you.
Now let’s discuss the threats you may face when connecting to public Wi-Fi. They’re in no particular order with regard to severity or rarity, but they’re all dangerous and are something you need to protect yourself from. Let’s get started.
No, not the ones you pull out of the ground, We’re talking about computer viruses that go by the name “worms.” Of course, worms aren’t exactly like typical computer viruses.
The key difference between a worm and a computer virus is that a worm doesn’t need to attach itself to a program first before starting its work. This is the reason they’re so dangerous. Additionally, they’re often designed to spread and evolve over time, making them even more dangerous.
In any case, when you connect to a public Wi-Fi network without the proper safety considerations in place, a worm that’s initially residing on another device connected to the same public Wi-Fi network as you can easily transfer itself to your machine. The worm will begin its work on your device and could possibly spread from your device to another on the same network.
Think of ad hocs as peer-to-peer networks. These networks enable two machines to connect to each other directly. In the majority of cases, you’ll find that affected machines use the same channels as their Wi-Fi connections to connect to ad hoc networks.
By design, your device continues looking for networks even after it connects to one. It’s constantly searching for the network with the strongest connection and best speeds.
Any hacker worth their salt can take advantage of this design feature and form a direct connection to your device and then open up new connections. Then can use this method to steal your personal data from your device and then sell it, thereby exposing your personal information to whoever chooses to buy it.
Evil Twin Attack
An evil twin attack is where hackers set up a malicious Wi-Fi access point and make it look like a legitimate one. They make a point of masking the name and encryption type of such access points in sophisticated ways. This means that you could be connecting to a fraudulent Wi-Fi access point even though it appears identical to the real one to which you meant to connect.
Hackers are able to mask their malicious access points by first cloning an existing access point that they know users already know and trust. This gives them an identical access point that users of the public Wi-Fi in that area will connect to without thinking twice. Once the user connects to the fraudulent access point, the hackers can send the user’s information to their headquarters.
Such attacks are most common on public Wi-Fi networks because of their inherent security vulnerabilities.
Sometimes hackers don’t want to use advanced techniques to tamper with public Wi-Fi networks. In these cases, they just take the easier route.
The easier route for hackers is to redirect a user’s traffic from the site the user was trying to use to a clone of the site. You may have seen this type of cyberattack referred to as DNS spoofing.
DNS spoofing is the simplest way for a hacker to trick users into giving up their username and password by submitting such information on clone sites that look like legitimate sites.
Even worse is the fact that most victims of this type of attack aren’t even aware that they’ve actually given away their login credentials until the damage has already been done.
Perhaps the most common cyberattack is the man-in-the-middle attack. In this type of attack, the hacker cleverly intercepts the user’s data by essentially eavesdropping on their internet connection. Using this technique allows the hackers to intercept and relay messages that are supposed to only go back and forth between two users or servers.
This type of cyberattack is particularly damaging because everyone involved in the communication process doesn’t see any indication that something is wrong. In reality, something is wrong as the attacker has managed to take up a position which allows them to control the entirety of the communication session.
This is one of the reasons experts suggest that users stay away from using banking websites when they’re using public Wi-Fi. In man-in-the-middle attacks, the attacker is able to set up the communication channel in such a way that when the user inputs their login credentials to access their bank account, the information goes straight to the hacker’s machine. The information is intercepted so the banking institution never receives the user’s login information.
One of the most common ways to notice if something is wrong is to carefully examine your screen. If it appears to be jumping or is otherwise acting abnormally, it’s likely that there’s a problem. You should abort your login attempt immediately.
Same Passwords on Different Sites
People using the same password on multiple sites is a big problem that no one seems to be trying to solve aside from password managers. We know it’s not an easy habit to shake, but fixing it can keep you and your data safe, especially if you regularly use public Wi-Fi.
On top of using the same password on many different sites, many people use a single email address for almost all of their online accounts. Why is this as big of a problem as using the same password?
In short, it takes one less step out of the equation for a hacker trying to steal your information. Once they know your email address and that you use it for all your accounts, they just need to figure out your password. If you also use the same password for every site, their job is made significantly easier.
Hackers can easily figure out your email address when you’re using public Wi-Fi. If you absolutely have to use a public Wi-Fi network, be sure to use a VPN and be sure that you’re using different emails and passwords for your accounts.
Rogue Access Points
While it may sound crazy, access points can go rogue, but they need some help to do so. A hacker always has to provide the external push in order to make an access point do just a bit more than it’s supposed to.
Since the changes made to the access point are relatively small, access points and rogue access points are pretty similar in the way they work. A hacker only has to install one on a preexisting public Wi-Fi network. You will find them most commonly in wireless routers.
What happens most of the time is that an access point is installed by the business or organization offering public Wi-Fi, but it’s left unencrypted or otherwise vulnerable. At some point, a hacker comes along and tinkers with the network without having to put in much effort because the access point is unsecured.
Even if the access point wasn’t altered by a hacker, you still shouldn’t send any information through an unsecured access point.
While public Wi-Fi is dangerous in general, an unsecured public Wi-Fi access point is far more dangerous and should be avoided.
Most of the time, you’ll find that rogue access points have the same name as the original access point. This is usually the name of the hotel or the business offering the public Wi-Fi. For example, if you went to a library, the network may have the name “Official Library Network.” You quickly connect to it without realizing that the name of the legitimate public Wi-Fi network in the library was just “Library Network.”
Needless to say, once you’ve connected to the access point, hackers have all the opportunity in the world to see everything you do while on that network. Your internet connection will be routed through a hacker’s access point and you’ll be unaware that you’re not connected to a legitimate access point and that your information is being stolen.
Sniffing and Snooping
Modern hackers have access to special devices and software packages that can be used to eavesdrop on Wi-Fi connections. If there’s something worth recording and storing, you can bet hackers have a method in place to snoop and sniff out your data.
Hackers can now record any kind of information that the user inputs into a webpage. Some hacking software even allows them to record entire webpages. Using such software, hackers can steal the user’s login credentials for pretty much any website the user attempts to use.
Sniffing and snooping techniques are often used as part of an identity theft operation. Using this method, hackers are able to get so much information on an individual that they’re able to create a true-to-life persona of the individual they’ve hacked.
So the next time you’re on a public Wi-Fi network and want to access your bank account, think again. Hackers may just be lurking around the corner looking to steal your password, username and everything else they need to access your account and transfer all of your money to their own account. They could also be looking to steal your identity and use it to open credit card accounts or other money-related accounts to make purchases for themselves and leave you with the bill.
Hackers are often looking for the fastest way to steal the largest amount of data. For that reason, they often don’t go through the lengthy process of developing entire fake websites to steal users’ data. Often they just change an image or a section of text on a website.
While this may not seem like a big deal, it opens up the opportunity for hackers to inject illicit or otherwise undesirable material onto the devices of the users. At best this is unpleasant for the user and at worst it could lead to prison time or hefty fines depending on the nature of the material.
Whenever you’re using public Wi-Fi, watch out for those regular-looking pop-ups asking to show you customized feeds so you can have a better experience on the site. They may just be trying to get you in legal trouble for their own amusement.
Hackers don’t need to be in the center of things all the time to get what they want. In some cases, they look for the weakest link in the chain and then move forward from there to get to the bigger prize.
For example, maybe you’re sitting in your local library intending to finish up some work. Being a prudent online user, you’ve installed an antivirus software application for your protection against malware and other viruses.
However, another person connected to the same public Wi-Fi network may have no protection against malware. In such a case, a hacker would target the low hanging fruit first. They’ll hack the unprotected user’s device first, which will then give them access to other devices on the network.
Sometimes hackers can’t be bothered to learn the latest techniques to get data out of their potential victims’ machines. In this case, they resort to old school methods.
These include the hackers sitting in public places where they’re able to see directly over the shoulder of another user. Once the hacker sees enough, they may be able to get away with stealing the user’s login information.
Of course, this isn’t the most common type of security risk that you have to be concerned about when connecting to a public Wi-Fi network. However, hackers are banking on users not giving this technique any notice and staying content with installing the latest antivirus application on their devices and using a VPN.
To avoid shoulder surfing, try to make sure no one is too close behind you.
Try not to have your back up against a window. Sit with some sort of a wall behind your back. While antivirus software and VPNs are excellent tools, they can’t do anything to stop someone from looking at your screen.
Lack of Skill in Properly Setting Up Wi-Fi Networks
Another reason you should stay away from using public Wi-Fi networks is that they often have bad configurations. Since the person setting up the network is probably not going to be using the network, they’re not going to put in the extra effort to secure the network properly or adequately.
The information technology field has gone through such a rapid transformation that some find it hard to believe that hackers are finding it easier and easier to hack into public Wi-Fi networks because of some overlooked user errors.
As far as data protection is concerned, no one can guarantee that the public Wi-Fi network that you have connected to has enough. The owner of the network may not have any interest in protecting user data to begin with or may be unaware of what is necessary for adequate protection.
This is why we see many public Wi-Fi networks using the default password and username for their administrator accounts. The employees who set up these routers and networks don’t bother to change the default login information either because they don’t know that they should or they don’t care enough to do so.
Either way, it makes it extremely easy for even a novice hacker to infiltrate the network and start doing some damage to the network’s users.
Mobile Applications With Poor Security Measures
Software engineers working on mobile apps often don’t prioritize cybersecurity. Considering that the percentage of people accessing the web using a mobile device is increasing on a daily basis, this presents a goldmine for a hacker willing to put in some work. Add to that the fact that most mobile users don’t install antivirus software or a VPN on their mobile devices thinking that hackers are only interested in desktop and laptop users.