Public WiFi can be a lifesaver in emergencies. Every so often, you find yourself in a situation when you absolutely need to be online outside your private home network – to share your live location for an appointment, to look up a place on Google Maps, or to send your mum the latest cat meme. Not to mention that working from public WiFi hotspots is a common practice for modern business professionals.
Worldwide, as of 2018, there are 279 million public WiFi hotspots, and this number is projected torise to 542 million by 2021. More and more countries around the world offer public WiFi in the city centre, on public buses and trains. Lithuania leads the way with the fastest available public WiFi in the world, while France is ahead of other countries in the world with thehighest number of public hotspots relative to population size. Across the EU, the WiFi4EU programme aims to provide free WiFi to every town centre in the European Union by 2020, supplying everyone with access to municipal public networks.
Consumers access public networks regularly in cafés and bars, hotels and airports, and a multitude of other places like shopping malls and retail outlets, public offices, transport, or that sketchy network you sometimes catch if you stand on the corner after midnight. In 2017, US-based Identity Theft Resource
Centre conducted a survey in the framework of their report ‘Identity Theft: The Aftermath 2017’, to assess the impact of identity theft on consumer behaviour and the knowledge of preventive measures one can take to protect themselves from identity theft. Only 6.3% of respondents indicated that they used VPN on public WiFi to protect their data, while 33.8% indicated that not using public WiFi altogether was the best measure to avoid identity theft. The latest annualIdentity Fraud Study by Javelin Strategy & Research (focused on the US market) shows a worrying trend in identity fraud cybercrime: the number of victims has risen by 8% since 2017. Among the measures recommended to private users is encryption of personal data, installation of anti-malware, avoidance of public WiFi and/or use of VPN services.
Data transmitted through public WiFi is unprotected. The ease of access to public network (no password and authentication) makes it a lucrative channel for criminals who want to intercept your personal data, credit card information, or to distribute malware. Even password protected public networks – for example the ones you use at a café or restaurant – pose significant risk to your private data, as long as the person with malicious intent also has access to the network. The good news is, people who want to steal your personal information are usually not picky and go after the easiest target. This means that if you invest a little time and effort into your digital hygiene, online habits and technical awareness, you will become too complicated of a target for the potential attacker.
- Use a Virtual Private Network (VPN). Awareness about VPN has risen in recent years,especially among mobile users. When accessing business or personal accounts with your credentials, VPN will provide a level of encryption necessary to prevent interception of your data. VPNs are available for laptops and mobile devices alike, and offer an advanced level of protection against unauthorised access to the data exchanged between you and the connection point.
- Be cautious about networks you access. Rememberthat Doctor Who episode about the dangers of hooking up to a public WiFi, especially if it has a funky name and is controlled by extraterrestrial intelligence? Cafés and bars would normally have password protection on their WiFi, so if you see an unprotected network with the name of the venue double-check if it really belongs to them. A fake WiFi network may be set up by individuals with the sole intent to harvest your data (or, you know, your consciousness – if you live in the Doctor Who universe).
- Do not log on to websites where cybercriminals can harvest your financial data or personal information. For the love of reason, do not use your credit card to buy something online while on public WiFi.
- TLS connections. In our browser, enable the use of HTTPS protocols on all websites you visit frequently, especially the websites that require you to log in. TLS will add an additional level of encryption to you personal data. This concerns not just the obvious websites like your online banking or social media profiles. Unfortunately, most internet users tend to re-use a few common passwords across different platforms. This means that if the ‘hackers’ get access to your credentials on Netflix, they may as well succeed using the same credentials on Facebook, Twitter, Gmail or online banking portal.
- Turn off sharing. Double check your System Settings to disable all sharing options. While sharing some files and folders wirelessly may be useful in your home or office network, a public network will expose your files to unfettered access by random strangers.
- Make sure your firewall is on, and anti-malware programs are running. These will not only protect your computer from getting a digital equivalent of medieval plague, but also scan all the files you download over public network, warning you of potential risks of ransomware or data harvesting malware.
- Do not ‘remember’ public WiFi hotspots. Do not allow your device to connect automatically when you are within the range of a public hotspot. On most devices, this feature is disabled by default, so you simply need to avoid the temptation to check the ‘Connect automatically’ box. Remember that once you are hooked to a public network the exchange of data between your phone/computer and the connection point is running, even if you are not using your device. It is also a good practice to disconnect from public WiFi once you are not actively browsing the internet.