Since people are attracted to shops and restaurants with free Wi-Fi, it’s becoming even more common for businesses to offer it. But how safe are these public Wi-Fi networks really?
The rule in the past has always been to stay off public Wi-Fi. It’s dangerous. But today, with the large-scale use of HTTPS encryption on most websites, more public awareness of the risks, and tools that protect your device from hackers, the rule about avoiding all public Wi-Fi may be a bit outdated.
There are two different kinds of Wi-Fi you will encounter. Open Wi-Fi networks don’t require a password or security code, and they are not encrypted. Open Wi-Fi transmits the data in plain text and makes it easy for someone to steal that information. Then there are public Wi-Fis which require a password to sign in. These types of connections are encrypted and are more secure than open ones.
The Past Risks of Using Public Wi-Fi
In the early days of the Internet, most communication was not encrypted. Hackers could steal your passwords or your login cookies and impersonate you on websites. Sites that used HTTPS on all pages were safer, but such sites were few and far between.
In 2010, Eric Butler released the Firesheep extension for Firefox as a way to demonstrate how vulnerable users on an open Wi-Fi network were to having their information stolen. The software listened for session cookies and used the cookies to get the identity of sessions. The identities displayed in a sidebar on Firefox, and by just clicking on victim identities, hackers could take over the sessions.
Firesheep was a wake-up call for website owners. They realized that they needed to implement HTTPS, the encrypted version of HTTP, on every page of their sites.
The rollout to using https on all sites took time, but it appears to be almost fully deployed on legitimate websites. This means that all the information you send to and receive from a website is now encrypted. This encryption keeps your information safe.
But HTTPS encryption doesn’t mean that every piece of information is safe from hackers. HTTPS protects the content of your communications but doesn’t guard the metadata.
When you visit an HTTPS secure site, anyone along the data transfer path can see the domain names (e.g., maketecheasier.com) and when you visit them. However, they cannot see which pages you visit on that domain, your login information, or any other data you send to the site. It’s very similar to the data your ISP can see when you browse at home. If this is a risk you are willing to take, don’t worry about public Wi-Fi.
Add an Extra Layer of Protection
Nothing is perfect, and someone out there may be able to get your information from a public Wi-Fi, but the chances of it are much smaller today than they were ten years ago, especially if you take some of these precautions ahead of time and lock down your device.
- Keep your browser and operating system up to date.
- Install robust security software on all your devices.
- Use a VPN to encrypt your connection.
- Keep your phone set so it won’t automatically connect to any available networks.
- Add a security app to your phone such as Security Master, Avast Mobile Security, or AVG Antivirus.
- When connecting to a public Wi-Fi, take the extra step and ask for the password to a protected network instead of just opting for open ones.
Are public Wi-Fi connections safer today than they once were? Yes, they are. It’s still best to use your cellular data, but if you need to use a public network, you don’t need to be on edge, assuming that someone is probably stealing your information.
Life has enough worries. Public Wi-Fi doesn’t have to be one.