Ride the Lightning

Cybersecurity and Future of Law Practice Blog
by Sharon D. Nelson Esq., President of Sensei Enterprises, Inc.

How to Connect to Public Wi-Fi Safely

October 20, 2022

ZDNET published a post on October 17 about protecting your data and your device when connecting to public Wi-Fi. This has particularly been problematic with so many working from home or environments other than the office. We’re also traveling more often now, for work or vacations so we’re connecting from airports, hotels or conferences.

The nature of public Wi-Fi networks means they’re open for anybody to use – and data being transferred isn’t as secure as it would be on your home or corporate network.

Your login names, passwords, bank details and other personal information could all be at risk if you’re not wary using public Wi-Fi – either because the network itself is insecure, or a malicious hacker is on the same network and is directing data entered by others through channels they can see.

Here are some safety steps you can take while using public Wi-Fi.

Make sure you are connecting to a legitimate network. You might be in an airport or hotel and you see a name suggestive of where you are. “Free Airport Wi’Fi” at an airport might look legit but it may be a network set up by a cybercriminal.

With the right tools, whoever is running that fake network might be able to see what information is being entered, which could lead to the data being stolen. That’s why it’s important to verify that the network is legitimate.

A lot of public Wi-Fi networks want information from you to register to use them. This data could be your email address or even your phone number. If you don’t want to run the risk that the company providing the Wi-Fi will store your data or use it for marketing purposes, consider using a secondary email address.

Some networks will also require you to set up a password to use the Wi-Fi. If this is the case, don’t use the same password you use for any other account – particularly if that password is tied to your email address. Adopting that approach means that if the passwords are somehow leaked, it isn’t one that can be used to access any of your other accounts linked to your email address.

Think about what data you’re sharing on public Wi-Fi networks and you should avoid using them if you need to do anything that involves sharing sensitive information, such as usernames, passwords, and bank details.

The nature of public Wi-Fi means it’s possible that activity could be seen by someone else, which is particularly the case if the website isn’t secured with https. However, just because the website has https, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s secure (yes, I know this makes you crazy) so you should be mindful of what information you enter.

Once you’re though using a network, choose to forget the network. Say, for instance, that you connect to a coffee shop that has venues in multiple locations.

When you’ve connected to a network or a network provider previously, your device might reconnect to it automatically. It might be easy to forget this, and you might take it for granted that the network is safe – but it is possible that something has changed between visits.

To help stay safe, you should set your device to forget previously used networks – or at least tell it not to reconnect to them automatically. You can choose to reconnect to the network manually if you choose, but only after you’re certain you want to connect to it.

Sometimes, using Wi-Fi on a public network can’t be avoided. But even if you’re certain that the network is legitimate and safe to use, there’s still an additional step you can take to help keep your information secure – using a virtual private network (VPN).

VPNs provide two key services to keep your information private and secure. First, they encrypt your data – that’s useful on public Wi-Fi networks as they’re mostly unencrypted. By using a VPN, it makes it difficult for the network operator – or anyone who could be trying to use that network maliciously – to see what information you send and receive.

Second, they can also conceal your IP address, hiding where you’re geographically located – that’s important for those who need online privacy.

You might be tempted to go with a free VPN service. However, while VPNs are supposed to protect your privacy, some free services request unnecessary permissions or even don’t fully conceal your data. While it’s recommended that someone who needs a VPN regularly should pay for it, some of the major, most reputable VPN vendors do offer limited free versions.

Even if you take precautions, connecting to a public Wi-Fi network carries a risk – even if it’s only a little one. But there’s an alternative to connecting to public Wi-Fi – using the mobile data of your smartphone.

If you’re connecting to the internet on your smartphone, it’s already doing this. But if you want to connect your laptop to the internet, you can turn your smartphone into a Wi-Fi hotspot and tether from it.  That is often our choice when traveling.

This trend is growing as 5G smartphones become more common, providing users with much faster speeds than an overworked public Wi-Fi network.

If you choose to connect by using tethering, ensure the connection is secured with a complex password, so nobody else can gain access to it.

Thanks for the succinct and sound tips ZDNET!

Sharon D. Nelson, Esq., PresidentSensei Enterprises, Inc.
3975 University Drive, Suite 225Fairfax, VA 22030
Email:   Phone: 703-359-0700
Digital Forensics/Cybersecurity/Information Technology