Is public Wi-Fi safe? Can public Wi-Fi be trusted? Should you use it?

Public Wi-Fi hotspots are convenient and enable you to get online at cafes, hotels, stations, airports, shopping malls and other places, but are they safe? Minimize the risk with these tips.

It is great that Wi-Fi is everywhere these days and unless you are up a mountain or otherwise miles from civilization, you will probably have a wireless network to connect to with your phone or laptop computer. Sometimes there are multiple networks to choose from and a quick look at what is around you in a shopping mall, cafe or other public place will sometimes reveal half a dozen or even more.

Wi-Fi networks on an Apple Mac
Just some of the Wi-Fi networks and the list goes on…

With so many networks to choose from, which one is the safest to use? In fact, can you trust any of them? Whether you use a phone or a laptop at a public Wi-Fi hotspot, you need to know the potential risks and how to stay safe when using them.

What are the risks using public Wi-Fi?

With public Wi-Fi you do not know who set it up, if it was set up correctly, whether it has good security, whether someone is monitoring what you do online, or even if someone is intercepting and analyzing your internet traffic.

With your own home Wi-Fi you know, or can find out, every little detail about your internet traffic and usage. You set up the router and only you can access it. With public Wi-Fi you cannot even be sure whose Wi-Fi you are using or who else is connected to it. Could someone be monitoring traffic, sniffing out data and looking for logins, passwords, bank or shopping information? Yes, it is possible to be hacked at public hotspots. Don’t panic because it is not likely, but it is certainly possible.

Connecting to Wi-Fi illustration
Connecting to Wi-Fi, but is it safe?

If you use a public wireless network on your phone or laptop computer, it would be wrong to assume that you will immediately be hacked and your passwords, online banking and credit cards stolen. That rarely happens, but there is a slight risk. You might use public Wi-Fi for years without anything bad happening, just like some people drive cars and never have an accident. Bad things do happen, but only occasionally and there are steps you can take to minimize the risk.

Most websites use https connections these days and this encrypts communications between your browser and the site. It is almost impossible to see what information is being exchanged by someone who eavesdrops on this type of internet traffic. A browser using https is quite secure, but some apps on your phone or computer may communicate with servers in the background without using a secure https connection and they may exchange personal information, so some activities can still be spied upon.

Know who you are connected to

When looking at the wireless networks to connect to on a phone or computer, it is usually safer to choose well-known hotspot names. For example, if you are in a well-known cafe chain, it is usually safer to connect to than an unknown network name that appears in the list. For example, connecting to Starbucks Wi-Fi in a Starbucks cafe is likely to be safer than a network that appears as Bob’s Wi-Fi on your phone or computer. They have a brand and a reputation to uphold.

Many phones can easily be turned into a Wi-Fi hotspot and sometimes you actually see networks like Jim’s Wi-Fi or something similar listed. If you connect to it, all your internet traffic will go through their phone and they can view it, analyze it and record it, which is clearly a huge security problem. It is like a gift to a hacker.

Try as best you can to make sure that you connect to a proper company-run network and not a hacker’s phone that is pretending to be a hotspot. Don’t assume that a Wi-Fi network is secure just because you have to sign up or log in, it may not be.

Use mobile data instead of public Wi-Fi

If you want to shop or bank online, it is safer to use a phone’s mobile network instead of a public Wi-Fi hotspot. There is just you and your phone network provider and no-one else can eavesdrop or intercept communications.

With public Wi-Fi you don’t know who might be watching or whether it is a secure connection, but with mobile no-one is watching and it definitely is secure. OK, technically your traffic goes through your phone company, but it is about as secure as you can be.

Turn off the Wi-Fi on the phone so that there is no chance of using it and do your banking, shopping or whatever needs to be secure.

Disable Wi-Fi and Bluetooth in public

It is a good idea to have the Wi-Fi permanently turned off when you leave your home or place of work. This is because a phone can connect to wireless networks automatically. As you walk through a busy shopping mall, your device may connect to every shop and cafe you walk past. Who knows what information might be exchanged?

Wi-Fi and Bluetooth settings on a phone
Turn off Wi-Fi and Bluetooth in public

Turning off the Wi-Fi when you are out can be done manually of course, but if you are likely to forget, there are automation apps that can do it for you, like IFTTT (If This Then That) and others.

You may find a setting in your phone that automatically turns off Wi-Fi for unknown locations and enables it in known ones. Your phone may also have an option to notify you if suspicious activity is detected on the current network. Both of these options are useful.

Automatic Wi-Fi settings on an Android phone
Wi-Fi settings on an Android phone

Bluetooth also automatically connects to other Bluetooth devices as you walk by them or sit sipping coffee in a cafe. They could potentially be used to track you or trick you. Don’t accept Bluetooth connections in a public place unless you know who or what you are connecting to. It is safest to turn it off in public. This is both for phones and for computers.

Turn your phone into a Wi-Fi hotspot

If you have a big data allowance or better still, unlimited data on your phone, use it instead of connecting to public networks for extra security. Many phones and mobile network plans have the ability to turn the phone into a Wi-Fi hotspot. Look for this option in the phone settings or network settings, it is usually just a simple tap to enable.

Enable the Wi-Fi hotspot on a phone
Create your own Wi-Fi hotspot with a phone

When a phone hotspot is enabled, you are shown the network name and the password. Connect to it using your laptop computer and you have a secure, fast, private internet connection that is much safer than using public networks.

It may be worth paying a bit more for your mobile plan and getting one that includes unlimited data if you need Wi-Fi when you are out and about.

Use a VPN for public Wi-Fi

One of the best ways to make insecure public Wi-Fi secure is to use a VPN on your phone or computer. One VPN account works across multiple devices and it is common to allow six or more devices on one account. VPN software on the phone and computer encrypts internet traffic and accesses the internet through a remote secure VPN server.

Eavesdropping and looking at your internet traffic passing through the public Wi-Fi would reveal nothing and it looks like randomized garbled data. A VPN prevents anyone on the local wireless network from seeing what you are doing, so everything you do is private and secure. The VPN provider can see what you are accessing, but all good ones have a no-logs policy and do not record what you do. This makes it much safer than a hotspot.

A bonus feature is that a VPN unblocks websites and services too. Many public Wi-Fi hotspots have filters that block access to certain things and sometimes the filters get in the way of what you want to do. The filters can be so strict that you cannot get your work done, which is a pain. A VPN solves the problem and enables you to access the sites you need.

There are some dodgy VPNs out there that should be avoided, so take a look at these recommended VPN providers.

Hotspot restrictions vary, but a VPN gets around them. VPN providers are often blocked at hotspots, so install one before leaving home.

Stop sharing, hide behind a firewall

When a laptop computer is used on a public wireless network, it needs a firewall and it also needs to have sharing functions disabled. A firewall prevents other users and devices on the network from accessing the computer, so if there is a hacker nearby or just someone curious to see what you have on your computer’s disk, they will be locked out.

Windows firewall settings
Windows Firewall settings in the Control Panel

Windows has two settings for the built-in firewall, one for home and work, and one for public Wi-Fi hotspots. Open Windows Firewall in the Control Panel or open Settings > Network & Internet > Windows Firewall and it shows which firewall is active. It should be Public when in public and this increases security by limiting some risky activities.

On the Apple Mac, go to System Preferences > Security & Firewall > Firewall and turn it on. Click the Firewall Options button and turn on stealth mode to hide the computer on the network so others, hackers or snoopers, cannot see it. Go to System Preferences > Sharing and make sure nothing is shared on the network.

AirDrop settings on the iPhone
Turn off AirDrop or limit it to contacts on the iPhone

Things like AirDrop on the iPhone and Mac should be disabled so that no-one can try to send you files. They may be malware. Search System Preferences (Mac) or Settings (iPhone) for AirDrop and turn it off or at least limit it to known contacts. never enable it for everyone.

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