Cyber-attacks have now become as much part of life as digital devices and the internet. It’s pervasive, and it’s everywhere. Nowhere is this more clear than when it comes to public Wi-Fi. In these last few years, public Wi-Fi hotspots have popped up everywhere, and people are very comfortable connecting to them.
So comfortable that security is often an afterthought. A 2019 survey by Bullguard showed that around 76% of people put convenience ahead of security when it comes to Wi-Fi connections. People either just go with any free option or look for an option with strong signal strength and a name that “looks right”.
Despite the general population getting more privacy-conscious and concerned about digital threats, many don’t act upon it. Let’s take a look at why public Wi-Fi is dangerous and what people should do instead.
Why is Public Wi-Fi Unsafe?
The problem with public Wi-Fi networks is that, by making them open to everyone, anyone with an ulterior motive gets direct access. Wi-Fi networks are often not encrypted, and open networks aren’t password-protected. Or they have simple passwords that are easy to guess.
The result is that hackers can get access to everyone else who is connected to that network. The worst part is, they can do so without anyone, even the victims, noticing. When this happens, they can do much more than just see what a person is doing online. They can steal login details (including passwords), credit card information, work data (company IP), and other sensitive information.
Public Wi-Fi Hotspot Cyber Attacks
There are several ways a hacker can infiltrate someone’s device via public Wi-Fi:
- Snooping: By using special software that’s freely available, even less sophisticated hackers can get access to people’s devices. With this software, they can see what people are doing online, go through their browsing history, and see what people type into login boxes.
- Man-in-the-Middle attack: Hackers use this method to set up their device as a waypoint between a person’s device and the website server it’s connecting to. Any data that is sent either way gets sent to them first, allowing them to intercept everything.
- Malware injection: When hackers get access to devices via a network, they can install malware on those devices, usually without anyone noticing.
Criminals Can Set Up Fake Wi-Fi Hotspots to Trick People
Also called evil twin attacks, these fake Wi-Fi hotspots usually look like the real deal. This is a different type of public Wi-Fi attack because the attackers aren’t abusing the existing open network but creating a new one from scratch.
This type of attack can take on a couple of different forms and get quite complex. It can also be used as part of a phishing attack to make people think they’re entering their details into a legitimate website. Typically, they create a working network connection and try to make it look as legitimate as possible. By naming their connection something like “Coffee Shop01”, they’re able to fool people into thinking they’re connecting to a real network.
Why is Mobile Data More Secure than Public Wi-Fi?
A 4G (or now even 5G) enabled device connects to a cellular network through an encrypted connection. While it’s not impossible to hack into a mobile network for an experienced hacker, it is much, much harder than hacking into public Wi-Fi. For the latter, all a hacker needs are some simple tools that can be easily downloaded from the web and a bit of know-how.
The only downside to using mobile data is that it will generally cost quite a bit more than a regular Wi-Fi connection. And certainly more than free public Wi-Fi. But avoiding the risk of a cyber attack is worth the few extra dollars.
What to do if Public Wi-Fi is the Only Option
The only way to stay safe when using public Wi-Fi is by having a VPN installed and turned on first. The VPN will protect any data that moves through the connection by encrypting it, keeping outsiders from being able to decipher what’s going on. Just keep in mind that while a VPN helps protect any data traveling through the connection, it can’t prevent malware injections.
So even though it’s much safer with a VPN, it’s probably still better not to enter any sensitive information into websites.
Hackers will try to take advantage of any situation or vulnerability, which is why it’s become more essential than ever to stay vigilant. The only way to stay a step ahead of cyber threats is to know what counts as unsafe online behavior, but it’s easy to become complacent.
And that’s the threat public Wi-Fi networks pose – an easy way to fall into a comfortable trap.