In this day and age, free Wi-Fi is almost god-sent. Connectivity is nowadays a vital essential, sitting at the base of the Maslow’s hierarchy of needs even below food and warmth, so they say. But as I enter a cafe with free internet, seeing people typing away on their devices unsuspectingly, I can’t help but wonder if these people are aware of the risks they were exposing themselves to by connecting to an unsecured network. Learning that free Wi-Fis are extremely risky can be the turning point for most people who took for granted their cybersecurity and privacy.
To keep you better informed, this piece hopes to expose you to the possible risks you might be running when on a free, public Wi-Fi network, and how you can mitigate them, too.
Public Wi-Fi: Behind the Scenes
More often than not, users will be required to agree to certain terms and conditions before they start to use a free Wi-Fi connection in a public place. It is a widely known fact that the majority of people are not interested in what are in these policies and agreements. When it comes to something as serious as your internet security and privacy though, I think you should be concerned enough. If you take a moment to look at the policies of many big companies, restaurant chains and establishments today, you will most certainly agree with my line of thought.
Tim Hortons – a well-known coffee chain operating out of Canada – is very outspoken on the security (or lack thereof) of your connection when you are on their Wi-Fi network. Among other things, they make it known to the user that their ‘messages may be the subject of unauthorized third-party interception and review.’
This means EVERY SINGLE MESSAGE you send on such a connection could get into the wrong hands. Imagine sharing trade secrets or sensitive company data and that gets harvested by an unscrupulous individual… just imagine!
Arqiva is another firm which is, ironically, responsible for the fixing of Wi-Fi networks in airport lounges. One would expect such a company to have a beefed-up security protocol in place. Yet, they make you ‘acknowledge that the transmission of information via the internet and the service is not secure.’
To buttress that point, the tech guys over at MidMichigan Health added that they ‘recommend that you do not view or send sensitive information, such as financial, personal or proprietary information’ when connected to their Wi-Fi network.
If anything, the very fact that those offering you the free connection are also warning you against it should set the bells ringing already.
What Makes Public Wi-Fi so bad?
When you set up a Wi-Fi connection at home/ in the office, you will usually get a prompt to secure the network. Thus, anyone who would like to connect to this network would have to enter a password/ passphrase to gain access.
When you are connecting to public Wi-Fi networks, you should have noticed that you won’t need to enter any of such passphrases. That is what makes the network insecure.
Okay. You got the part where you don’t need to enter a password, but what does that really mean?
It means the network can be accessed by just about anyone, and what you do on such a network is open to unauthorized individuals too. Some of the ways you could be targeted on such a network are:
Hackers employ a variety of tools that target Wi-Fi networks and harvests data being transferred on such a network. Due to the open nature of public Wi-Fi, this would be much easier to do once the hacker logs onto the same network. They can, thus, target and get sensitive login information, financial data and so much more.
An experienced hacker could go as far as uploading malware onto the Wi-Fi network. This malware will be downloaded to any and all devices connecting to the said network. The downside of this is that even when you log off the connection, such a hacker will still have remote access to your computer via the malware.
This is yet another technique which hackers use to hijack sensitive information. They position themselves in the middle of an ongoing conversation between two or more sides. When messages are sent, they get them first and can decide to manipulate such messages.
These hackers will be able to get any side of the conversation to reveal sensitive information by impersonating the other end.
The quest for freebies might make you connect to the wrong Wi-Fi network sometimes.
Imagine an establishment with the name ‘CITY Bank.’ A hacker could easily create a rogue network with a name such as ‘C1TY Bank” (Notice the ‘1’ instead of ‘I’) and fool people into connecting to that instead. It needs no telling that any and all connections give such a hacker the pass to view what you are doing online: the web pages you visit, the transactions you make, communications and so on.
Network Owners Spy Too
The funny thing with free public Wi-Fi is that it could be safe, have zero malware on it and be supported on the best security protocols, and you would still be exposed.
There is a saying that ‘when you don’t see what is being sold, you are the product.’ This holds true for the owners of most free Wi-Fi networks who would take user data and sell them to interested companies.
This can even be seen in those terms and conditions you agreed to, should you choose to go through them.
For example, the folks over at Melbourne Airport take your agreement to the terms and conditions to mean also agreeing to the airport ‘collecting, holding and disclosing the following information: Location data at Melbourne Airport.’ At the Oscars, you should know that ‘the Academy reserves the right to monitor and collect information while you are connected to the service.’
It is really becoming evident that with public Wi-Fi, the idea of being free might just be an illusion to lure you into even more harm.
What You Can Do
It would be a harsh decision on most if I suggested staying away from Wi-Fi networks in general. To be candid, they do a lot of help. However, their flaws cannot be overlooked too.
If you find yourself in such a fix, know that you can always get away with a good Virtual Private Network (VPN).
Such a service will allow you to browse the internet anonymously and keep your internet data safe from hackers. Even if you were connecting to a rogue network, the hacker still won’t be able to see what you were doing on their network.
A good VPN would do you one better by allowing you to reach websites that have been restricted on the public Wi-Fi domains.
Before you agree to those terms and conditions on your next free public Wi-Fi experience, you might want to have a VPN running first.