How safe are open Wi-Fi networks?

What is an unsecured Wi-Fi network?

An unsecured Wi-Fi network refers to a connection that does not require a password to access. Most public networks, such as those in coffee shops, retail outlets and public transport are unsecured, making it quick and convenient for people to connect to Wi-Fi without authorisation.

So, why should you know about these networks? Unfortunately, many people don’t understand the risks to personal data and information when using a public network, despite their commonality in today’s world. With 60% of people in the UK not taking any security measures to protect their information while using public Wi-Fi networks, we’re here to educate and highlight the risks of public networks that you might not be aware of.

Women sits at a cafe table on her laptop

What are the risks of using a public Wi-Fi network?

If you have a private home or work broadband package, you will likely have a password that’s required to connect your devices. Most of these secured networks are set up to protect the users who are regularly accessing this network against anyone who wants to steal personal information, gain remote access to your device, or infect the device with a virus.

Whilst even password-protected Wi-Fi connections aren’t 100% safe, the risk increases dramatically on public networks where anyone and everyone can log on at the touch of a button.

So, what are some of the risks?

  • Identity theft via online victim profiling
  • Infecting your device with malware
  • Stealing your passwords
  • Snooping for confidential data
  • Business email compromise
  • Ransomware attacks
  • Session hijacking
  • Taking over your online accounts
  • Targeting you with phishing attacks
  • Gaining remote control of your device

Protecting personal information is the number one concern for many users when they’re browsing online, yet many people regularly use public Wi-Fi networks to access their online banking, log into work accounts and, most commonly, to check emails. Unfortunately, it doesn’t take someone long to gain access to your personal information on a shared network, so being vigilant and knowing how to protect yourself is key.

Can public Wi-Fi see my history?

Yes – your search history is visible if you browse on a public network. In fact, your search history is not just at risk of being seen by an intruder on the network, but also the Wi-Fi’s router administrator could access the sites you’ve browsed whilst being connected. Although for the most part this may not seem risky, it can lead to your data being sold and you receiving an influx of otherwise unwanted communications based on your search history, so it’s worth being aware of where and how you use certain networks.

Can people access my computer on unsecured networks?

In short, yes. Known as ‘session hijacking’, an attacker could use their connections on shared networks to take over your device without your knowledge, which poses a huge risk if you’re taking, shopping or paying for anything on an unsecured network.

It’s scary to think about, but session hijacking isn’t easy to detect, so it’s best to avoid completing any searches or activities on a public Wi-Fi connection that could put your personal information in danger.

Can computer viruses be sent through Wi-Fi?

Yes. Although this is not so much targeted at a particular device, a Wi-Fi router can get a virus which then spreads to all those who connect to it.

There are signs to look out for that your device may have been attacked;

  • Software is being or has been installed that you weren’t aware of
  • Programs that were loading fine now crash
  • Internet speed is slower than normal
  • Familiar sites look different.

If you think there could be a virus on your Wi-Fi router, it’s important to disconnect your device, contact the establishment where you connected to a public router and ensure you seek technical support. Depending on what you accessed whilst using the network, you may want to contact your bank, your employer or anyone that may be compromised by a data breach.

Cybersecurity tips to stay safe while on an unsecured network

As with all these risks, it’s not easy to detect but there are a few ways you can minimise this risk to your laptop, tablet or phone;

  • Use a VPN
  • Turn off your auto-connect, even if you’ve connected before
  • Make sure you log out of any personal accounts before going into a public Wi-Fi area.

Is public Wi-Fi safe if it has a password?

Any ‘public’ Wi-Fi always has its risks, but a password-protected network is slightly safer and lower risk than one that is ‘FREE’ or open to any device. Attackers will want a quick and easy way to gain information so needing a password may be a deterrent.

However, public Wi-Fi with or without a password still needs to be used with caution. The same rules apply regarding personal information you access online and the advice would be to still avoid these where possible and save your activity for when you are connected to a secure network.

The benefits of using a VPN while on Public Wi-Fi

A VPN (Virtual Private Network) provides a layer of encryption that an attacker would need to break through to access your device or network. When connecting to a VPN it acts as a third party and redirects your internet connection to a private server where details such as your IP address are encrypted. This prevents anyone from accessing or snooping on your device, making a VPN a must-have for anyone who regularly accesses public networks. 

Readily available by many providers, it is the one main recommendation by cybersecurity firms for preventing online crime in public places, reducing the spread of viruses through routers and cracking down on those whose main aim is to steal personal information from the general public.

If you have any concerns about your business Wi-Fi security, or feel your home broadband could be improved to ensure it’s a secure connection, the Jurassic Fibre team are here to help.
Looking for broadband in Taunton? We’re your first stop. Get in touch to learn more.

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