If you still connect to public Wi-Fi on your mobile device or laptop, you need to stop. It doesn’t matter if you are just casually scrolling through Facebook, doing work or paying bills, you may still be at risk. Even though we are now at the stage where our devices and Wi-Fi connections have advanced security, we are never fully protected. Australia doesn’t have quite as many problems as some other countries due to the availability of mobile data and the need for accessible public Wi-Fi, but, hacking through open Wi-Fi connections still occurs more than it should and most times, you would not even know it’s happened.
Let’s take a typical situation. You are at an airport, bus station, café or restaurant and see a ‘Free Wi-Fi Available’ sign. Instead of using your own paid data you connect and check your emails, look at your bank account or access private information. When you log into any of these free Wi-Fi hotspots, you expose every site, password and piece of text you have recently submitted.
When you are on the road or on the borderline of exceeding your data, there is no sweeter thing than seeing that ‘Free Wi-Fi Available’ sign, but don’t fall for it. I used to continuously look for the free connections when I was travelling for work and was needing to read or send critical business emails/documents. However, now that I know about the risks, I wouldn’t dream of connecting to one of these free ‘hotspots’ and here’s why:
How is public Wi-Fi different from your work or business?
Public Wi-Fi or public hotspots as they are commonly called, to the untrained eye are almost exactly the same as your work or home Wi-Fi connection except they have a different level of security to access them. Most are set to ‘public’ rather than ‘work’ or ‘home’ which means that anyone can see the information that you are transmitting if they know how to access it. These hotspots need to be setup this way so that if someone from the public comes along and acesses illegal sites or pirates films/software/music, the owners can determine who it was and make them stop before they themselves get into trouble, as they are hosting the connection.
As commented by makeuseof.com, “Wi-Fi uses radio waves, and radio waves are anything but direct. They broadcast. This means that anyone within range can see everything you’re doing online if they have the right software”. Some have password protection, some have free access, and others require you to pay a small fee. Regardless, if you don’t know how to check their security levels in detail, you are better connecting to your phone.
The risks of using public Wi-Fi
So, everything you do can be seen and recorded. Every site you use and every program you access is now visible. You might as well write down my passwords and start handing them out. Now, I hear you saying, ‘I have used public Wi-Fi in the past and never been hacked’. Which is not uncommon in Australia, but the attacks can come at a later time. The hackers could be installing malware, ordering new credit cards or reading your personal documents and you won’t know that these things have occurred until it’s too late. Trying to reverse the damage they have done is also an arduous task.
I read an article on medium.com where they actually took a hacker to a café and watched him do his magic. Within 20 minutes, he knew where everyone else was born, what schools they attended, and the last five things they Googled. And all he did was create a false Wi-Fi name (like Starbucks_Free_Wifi whereas it would normally be StarbuckscustomerWiFi), and the other customers did all the work for him.
It’s also important to note a term called ‘Wi-Fi Sniffing’. “Attackers record huge swathes of data as it travels across the network and then analyse it later to uncover useful details”. And guess what, it’s not illegal to do this. The article goes on to say that it’s only illegal if there are terms of usage on the Wi-Fi’s login, so if there is no password protection, and not terms and conditions before you connect, you do the math.
My suggestion, upgrade your phone plan to include more data so you can set up a Hotspot. From a price point of view, it is becoming more accessible to increase data on your plan without paying through the roof. If you are travelling overseas, get a portable internet connection. The majority of the time you will be okay and I don’t want to create a state of alarm but, don’t connect to the first Wi-Fi signal you see and instead Hotspot your phone where you can or ask the people working which one is the right one.
Be careful, be cautious and be over protective. There are certain measures that you can put in place if you want to be more secure, read here.
Images: Deposit Photos