Are Public WiFi Networks Secure?

Access to public WiFi networks are becoming more and more common to the point where it seems commonplace and expected to receive free WiFi at your local coffee shop. However, connecting to public WiFi networks might not be as harmless as it seems, and can leave your data vulnerable to cyberattacks, whether you are using the network for VoIP calls or even just browse the web and go through some emails.

In the US, 47% of people say they use public Wi-Fi regularly. This is no surprise, as working remotely has been increasingly more common since 2020. People working away from their offices might choose to settle down in public areas such as coffee shops and libraries. 

Are Public WiFi Networks Secure?

No. Your device is at its most vulnerable when you connect to public WiFi networks. When you connect to a public hotspot, your device and traffic are vulnerable to whoever owns the hotspot, or anyone inside the network.

Not only can criminals lurk within public WiFi networks, but sometimes they even create fake hotspots with networks that they themselves own. This means that the website you visit and any unencrypted information you share can be viewed by anyone using the same public WiFi network as you.

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What Issues Do Public WiFi Networks Have?

The fact that you are using a network used by multiple people puts you at risk of the following:

Malware and Viruses

The forced installation of malware is one of the main threats that people face when using public WiFi. Malware is an umbrella term for any code or app used to harm your device or steal your information. Viruses are a type of malware. They spread through a host and are replicated by a hacker. 

Hackers can infect the public WiFi network and force any device connected to it to install malware. This malware can be used to do anything from stealing your information to making your device unusable.

Rogue Networks

Also known as a rogue access point, rouge networks are often disguised as open WiFi hotspots, unprotected by a password. When the user connects, the hacker is able to infiltrate their device using the “back door” installed on your network. From there, they are able to steal your information.

Unencrypted Connections

This type of connection allows hackers to see any information or traffic sent between you and the server on a public WiFi network (source: bOnline). This can be used to install malicious script into your device, or to steal your information.

Network Snooping

This is when a hacker uses malicious software to remotely monitor your browsing, surveilling any information exchanged and saving it. 

Session Hijacking

Session hijacking happens very often on public WiFi. This is when your web browsing session is hijacked to gain access to data in a network in your device, which is then vulnerable to theft. 

Is It Safe To Use Encrypted Apps Like WhatsApp on Public WiFi?

Apps such as WhatsApp use end-to-end encryption, which protects your messages from being read or modified by anyone, including your router, your ISP, or even WhatsApp themselves. The only people able to send and receive texts should, in theory, be the sender and receiver. 

However, there is always the possibility of a flaw in WhatsApp’s protocols which could lead to your information being vulnerable.

How Can I Use Public WiFi Safely?

When hackers exploit public WiFi, the end goal is usually to steal your data. This usually means your credit card details, your banking information, and your passwords. 

To keep yourself as safe as possible, do not send any of this data to websites when you are using public wifi. This means no online payments, no online banking, and no log-ins. 

All of these things can, however, be done on public wifi if you use a VPN. A VPN encrypts your connection end to end between your device and the VPN server. This means that nobody can intercept your traffic and read your data. 

Another measure you can take is to stick to websites whose URLs begin with “https” instead of just “http”. The ‘s’ stands for secure, and these websites have security certificates to prove their safety. This method is not completely foolproof, however, because some hackers use their own https websites to reroute to unsecure http sites. 

Next time you connect to public WiFi, look out for the security of the hotspot that you want to use. If this hotspot requires a password or online login, then there is a lower chance that you are joining a hacker’s network. The public WiFi networks created by hackers usually have no password, and a name related to the building or location that you are in.

Is It Safe to Use Public WiFi with a VPN?

VPNs are an important security measure, and both the Federal Trade Commission and Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) recommend using a VPN when using a public WiFi network. 

However, even with a VPN, be aware that there is a small vulnerability that happens when you connect to a public WiFi network. Most public WiFi networks allow devices to connect automatically through a browser called a “captive portal”.

In the captive portal, you will be given some local terms of service before being allowed to browse the internet or access any website. There is a brief period of vulnerability during this process, as there is a gap in the coverage of your VPN while the captive portal is open. 

Because this captive portal is only open for a few seconds, you are only exposed to attacks for a very minor amount of time. This risk is negligible, although it does exist. Using a VPN when using public WiFi is still significantly safer than browsing on public WiFi unprotected.