Are public Wi-Fi hotspots safe to use?

As more and more of our digital lives are carried out on mobile devices, tablets and laptops, using public Wi-Fi hotspots has become more common. Whether in an airport lounge, coffee shop or simply in town centres, Wi-Fi hotspots are popping up everywhere – but there are important security considerations that you should be aware of before you sign-in, Public Wi-Fi is often unsecured, posing security risks to users.


Why are these networks insecure?


Even if you trust the organization running the hot-spot, you’re still potentially at risk.


An unsecured Wi-Fi network is any network that does not require you to enter a password or login credentials to use the network. These "open" networks also involve un-encrypted connections, leaving users at great risk. These hotspots are an easy target for hackers and nefarious people trying to steal login passwords, credit card information and contents of communications or other personal details. 


  • Hackers/Snoops: Hackers or snoops can infiltrate unsecured Wi-Fi networks and use them to collect personal details or sensitive login information


  • Man-in-the-Middle Attacks: A man-in-the-middle attack occurs when a malicious actor intercepts the communication between two people and inserts themselves into the conversation. The criminal can then access information being sent and intercept personal data - all without the senders or recipients knowing. This type of attack allows for eavesdropping, exploiting real-time transactions, conversations and data transfers allowing the hacker to steal personal information.


  • Malware: Unsecured Wi-Fi networks can be used to inject malware into devices connected to the network. this malware can give an attacker remote access to everything on your device. This includes files or photos, and can go as far as microphone or webcam activation for eavesdropping.


  • Rogue Hotspots/Fake Networks: These are hotspots that are set up by criminals, using a name close to that of the actual, legitimate Wi-Fi hotspot. These hotspots are created to trick users into connecting, thinking they are using a legitimate network at a coffee shop, for example. When you connect to one of these networks you become vulnerable to hacking/snooping conducted by the owner of the fake network.


Protecting yourself on public Wi-Fi


While there are several ways to protect yourself when using a Wi-Fi network, one way beats the rest – using a VPN. The most important thing you can do every time you connect is to use a VPN. A VPN encrypts your Internet connection to secure it and protect your privacy.

When connecting with a VPN, no one – not the Internet service provider, the business/network owner nor any third-party hacker or snoop – can see the information you send over the network. When using Wi-Fi with a VPN your privacy and security is protected at all times.


There are also several other precautions you can take, and the first step is really awareness - always "think before you connect." It’s essential to realize that when you’re logging on to a Wi-Fi network in a public place, especially one labelled “free,” you’re at risk. It’s also important to understand what you’re agreeing to. When you accept the terms and conditions of a public Wi-Fi hotspot, it’s likely you’re giving the service permission to collect information about you or what you’re looking at. Once you're aware, you can make better choices about when to connect and actively take measures to protect your privacy. 


Other things you can do to increase privacy:


  • Turn off sharing settings, so others on the network cannot access your information
  • Use a firewall
  • Always use HTTPS for websites you visit
  • Use 2-factor authentication for all login credentials on accounts
  • Turn off Wi-Fi whenever you aren't using it - this prevents it from automatically connecting and putting you at risk
  • Update settings to forget networks so they are not saved on your phone