We are living in an increasingly interconnected world, where being connected on-the-go 24 hours a day is considered the norm. This new era has ushered in the concept of being constantly online. We have ourselves created this world where our basic facilities demand that we are always available, wherever we are. Our basic existential facilities like health, work, entertainment, finance and searching for information all require a constant presence and connection to the internet. Heavy reliance on the internet, almost like a secondary source of oxygen, is certainly the real ‘new normal’ of this decade. Today, with more than half of the world accessing the internet mostly via smartphones, and with the internet penetrating even into the deepest tundras and jungles of developing countries, we should see at least a billion more people connected in the next few years. It is a humbling fact that humanity’s greatest communication tool ever, the internet, is able to reach so many human beings all over the planet and connect them as one.
There is an old, popularly used saying, that states ‘with great power comes great responsibility’. This is certainly true for our use of the internet. There are countless benefits and improvements to our society thanks to this great communication tool, but that doesn’t negate the fact that there are many risks as well if it is used without knowledge and responsibility. Your devices communicate what you search, how and what you pay, where you are located and other sensitive personal data with your internet browser, your internet service provider, and the rest of the internet. We entrust so much to the internet, and yet most people are oblivious of the risks involved, especially when it comes to data transfer in unencrypted communication, where cybercriminals await to exploit and steal your information that is passing through. One very simple concept, which we all take for granted, is the use of public Wi-Fi.
What is Public Wi-FI
Public Wi-Fi (sometimes called municipal Wi-Fi) is familiar to everyone who uses the internet on a daily basis. It is a wireless communication point available ‘publically’ e.g. hotels, airports, restaurants, coffee shops and some cities even have city-wide free Wi-Fi. Public Wi-Fi may in some cases require a payment for a quality connection, or may have a time limit for usage. City-wide Wi-Fi is implemented in a lot of cities, but definitely not all over the world. Free Wi-Fi usually requires you to access a ‘login’ page, where your phone registers itself with the network. Public Wi-Fi is not a new concept at all, it was instituted years ago especially when the world switched to the faster 802.11n standard in the 2010s. The IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers) established the worldwide Wi-Fi standard in the early 2000s, when universities and municipalities were researching moving wireless technology outdoors. U.S. states like California and countries like South Korea have long been some of the world leaders in wireless development and ultra-high speeds.
What Are The Dangers of Public Wi-Fi
So, we come to the dark side of using publicly available wireless internet, or municipal city-wide internet. Unfortunately, the past two decades have not been kind on internet users. As internet speeds have risen along with the number of users and devices connected, cybercriminals have been around to exploit sensitive data and steal it for profit. Without the proper protection and knowledge, when you connect to a public Wi-Fi connection you are exposing yourself to the following;
- Man-in-the-middle cyber criminal attacks
- Illegitimate Wi-FI hotspots
- Unencrypted data transfer
- Hackers hijacking your session
- Snooping of your data
- The risk of clicking on malware links
- Risk of your unencrypted apps being exposed
Cybercriminals can create fake Wi-FI points with identical names to the legitimate ones, especially when you see that the network in question is ‘unsecured’ in your Wi-Fi settings details. Logging into such a connection puts all of your personal data and passwords at risk of being exploited.
Encryption is a key factor in the safety of any online data transfer or communication. It is a method of scrambling data that is sent from the user to the internet into a code that blocks others from easily viewing and intercepting it. It is critical to ensure that you are always using an encrypted connection, whether on public or private Wi-Fi.
Staying Cybersecure on Public Wi-Fi
It isn’t all doom and gloom when it comes to public Wi-Fi, even though today it is oversaturated with users, stability issues and cybercriminals trying to snoop on data. There are certainly ways to circumvent any dangers if you find yourself connected to a public Wi-Fi point. Assuming a public Wi-Fi point is secure is very dangerous and risky. So, let’s look at some things you need to implement while accessing public Wi-Fi.
- A Virtual Private Network, or VPN
- HTTPS/SSL safety practices
- Internet safety-oriented browser plugins
- Using your mobile data connection instead
- Using a privacy-oriented browser
- General safety practices on the internet
A Virtual Private Network, or VPN is a revolutionary cybersecurity (internet safety) technology that is now available on smartphones, tablets and laptop or desktop computers connected to the internet. Installing a premium VPN (be wary of the free ones) allows you to hide your internet connection and transactions by connecting to an extra server that serves between you and the rest of the internet. Think of it as adding an extra layer of security. By connecting to a location/country/city of your choice, you are changing your IP (your computer’s digital address which reveals your physical location) to that of the VPN server. Effectively, this encrypts your entire connection, reduces the amount of info websites can collect about you and keeps your sensitive transactions safe. It also keeps you anonymous from your internet service provider (ISP). A VPN also helps bypass geographical restrictions, whereby you can place yourself virtually on another continent.
Using a default standard browser that comes with your OS or operating system is alright, but ideally you should be using a privacy-oriented specialist browser. These browsers were created to keep you private, anonymous and secure online. They will aid in blocking ‘tracking cookies’ and will keep your ‘digital fingerprint’ to a minimum. Furthermore, use their ‘private browsing’ or ‘anonymous browsing’ modes to make sure that you don’t leave a trace. To top it off, these modes will not hold your browsing history or other metadata that can be vulnerable to malware.
HTTPS, or Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure is an encryption technology that uses the TLS or Transport Layer Security medium (formerly SSL). When your browser connects to a website, you will see either ‘HTTP’ or ‘HTTPS’ in the address bar at the beginning. The ‘S’ in HTTPS denotes a confirmed secure connection. Always make sure that you see ‘HTTPS’ and a lock icon to the left of it, especially for online payments or anything sensitive for that matter. Yes, there are many websites that still aren’t HTTPS secured, and they aren’t necessarily dangerous, but avoid any sensitive information transfer with such websites.
Using Your Mobile Data Instead
Now that you are using a VPN, coupled with a privacy-oriented web browser, you can connect to a public Wi-Fi connection with more confidence. However, for even more peace of mind, skip the public Wi-Fi connection entirely and use your personal mobile data package (4G or 5G) while you are on the move. This is far safer than any public Wi-Fi, because it is your personal connection and it is encrypted, not to mention that it will be much, much faster. Why connect to a possibly compromised public Wi-Fi spot that hundreds, or maybe thousands of people are logged into when you can use your own, personal mobile data connection? Another advantage of this is that, by creating a ‘wi-fi hotspot’ from your mobile data connection, you can then connect your other devices to it, saving them from the dangers of public Wi-Fi too.
General Safety Practices To Keep In Mind on Public Wi-Fi
With a VPN and privacy web browser in place, ideally connected to a mobile data connection (also referred to as cellular data), you must apply the following general safety precautions as well in order to truly stay safe and cyber secure at all times;
- Always use long, complex passwords with random characters on all of your accounts and devices. Do not use the same password for two accounts twice.
- Make sure that you use MFA (multi-factor-authentication) on all accounts and devices
- Never reply to or open mails (especially attachments) from sources you do not know
- If you connect to public Wi-FI, the network must at least be WPA or WPA2 encrypted
- Once you are finished with your work, do not stay logged in, log out