Public Wi-Fi networks are everywhere these days, and they’re so useful—no matter where you are, you can get online (usually for free!) and take care of business. Seems almost too good to be true, right?
Well, sometimes, it is. The fact is that these public Wi-Fi hotspots can pose major security risks. If you’re going to use them, you need to be smart about it. Fortunately, protecting yourself on public Wi-Fi is fairly simple. In this article, we’ll cover some easy steps you can take to ensure your data stays private.
What are the risks of using public Wi-Fi?
With public Wi-Fi, anyone can join the network. That’s just the nature of it being public. Many public networks don’t have passwords at all. Of those that do, most post the passwords publicly or give them out to whoever asks, so you don’t really have any way of knowing who else is on the network.
This means, at least in theory, someone could spy on everything you do or use the network to freely access your device. That might seem a little dramatic, but due to the sensitive nature of the things we do online (banking, email, and sharing personal details with family and friends, for example), it’s best to treat every public network as if you’re being spied on.
How to protect yourself on public Wi-Fi
There’s a lot of risk involved with public Wi-Fi, but you’re not a helpless victim—you can defend yourself. From avoiding public networks altogether to simple internet safety best practices to special software, here are some of the best ways to protect yourself on public Wi-Fi.
Use a VPN
If you’re forced to use a public, unsecured Wi-Fi network, one of the best options for protecting yourself is to use a Virtual Private Network (VPN). These are tools that route your connection through an encrypted server, which can help disguise your traffic, IP address, and location.
VPNs aren’t totally foolproof—it’s still possible to pick up malware or input your information into a malicious form, for example. However, they can help protect your privacy and hide your activity from prying eyes.
Run internet security software on your device
One of the best ways you can protect your device and data online, whether on a public network or not, is to have internet security software in place. These tools include firewalls and antivirus software and often come with real-time monitoring of your device, so they can handle threats immediately as they occur. If you’re concerned about unwanted traffic, unauthorized access to your system, or malware, this is your best bet.
Use your phone as a hotspot
Perhaps the easiest way to stay safe using public Wi-Fi is to not use it at all. If possible, we highly recommend using your phone or another mobile device as a hotspot instead. This ensures that nobody else is connected, and it may offer better performance, too.
That said, this isn’t always possible or practical. Maybe your phone is dead, or your plan doesn’t offer unlimited hotspot functionality. Maybe you don’t have a phone that has this feature at all. If that’s the case, and you need to use public Wi-Fi, you’ll have to do your best to lock down your devices and information.
Avoid sending out sensitive information
On public networks, a good best practice is to assume someone is watching what you do. With that in mind, you should avoid sending out personal information. Don’t sign into websites, don’t enter your email address, mailing address, or social security number on forms, and definitely don’t input credit card numbers. You should also avoid sending text messages or emails that contain sensitive information.
This might feel extreme, but the reality is that it's very easy for someone to intercept this information on a public network. Identity theft is incredibly common and can start with someone intercepting a single piece of identifying information. If you’ve ever had to jump through the hoops of recovering from identity theft, you know how much of a hassle it can be—it can take as long as six months to a year to recover.
Don’t download or install anything
It’s a good idea to treat everything on a public Wi-Fi network as if it contains malware. That means no downloading files or installing applications from the internet, even if you think the source looks legit. The odds of something happening are low, and your antivirus software might catch it, but it’s better to be safe than sorry.
Make sure the network is from a trustworthy source
A good tip is to always check the source of the network you’re connecting to. If you’re at a mall, make sure you’re using the mall’s public Wi-Fi and not just the first random open network that popped up. Same thing for Starbucks or any other public area. Since you don’t own these networks, you don’t necessarily know what you’re connecting to or who’s on the other end. Sticking to obvious known entities helps cut down on the risk.
You should also pay close attention to the name of the network and make sure it’s legit. So-called “rogue hotspots” can masquerade as legitimate networks, with names like Mall Wi-Fi or Starbucks Public Hotspot. These seem legitimate at first glance but may not be. Always verify the actual name of the network you’re attempting to connect to—don’t assume!
Stick to secure sites
This tip is a good practice even when you’re on your secure home network. Try to stick to secure HTTPS websites whenever possible. These sites can be identified in two ways: by the presence of “https” in the web address (not just “http”!) or by a closed lock icon in your browser’s address bar.
HTTPS stands for Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure, and it helps facilitate secure communication online. These sites have encryption in place that helps prevent malicious activity.
Unsecured sites pose the same general risks as unsecured Wi-Fi networks—anybody could be watching. This means you want to avoid them as much as possible and be very careful about what sort of information you enter into forms.
Stay secure out there
Using a public Wi-Fi network can be a risky proposition. Yes, it’s free internet, but it’s free for everyone, including potential hackers. For that reason, you need to be careful. That said, there’s plenty you can do to make public Wi-Fi safer to use, and a lot of it comes down to following simple best practices.
Dave Schafer is a freelance writer with a passion for making technical concepts easy for anyone to understand. He’s been covering the world of gadgets, tech, and the internet for over 8 years, with a particular focus on TV and internet service providers. When he’s not writing, Dave can be found playing guitar or camping with his family and golden retriever, Rosie.
Bri Field has a background in academia, research writing, and brand marketing. She has edited scientific publications, conference papers, digital content, and technical communications. As Assigning Editor, she enjoys ensuring all content is accurate, clear, and helpful. In her free time, you can find her in the kitchen trying a new recipe, out on a hike, or working through her massive TBR list.