Is Public WiFi Really Safe?

article by Maria Perinic
May 14, 2019

Remember years ago when you’d head over to your local library or café with your laptop to do some work, pay bills and leisurely browse the net? Free public WiFi meant you could do all those things and more without a care in the world. Unfortunately, those days are long gone.

A report by WiFi network provider iPass estimated that in 2015 there were as many as 50 million public WiFi hotspots in the world. This means there is one for every 150 people. Similarly, Kaspersky Security Network also released a report which analyzed around 32 million public WiFi hotspots. Of those, around 25% had absolutely no encryption at all. None. This means anyone can pick up communications with the help of a simple antenna.

That’s right, you don’t have to have the tech knowledge of Bill Gates to hack someone’s WiFi connection. Norton released a survey a couple of years back where they shared that 61% of consumers thought their personal information is safe whilst using public WiFi. Many of them just assumed that public places like hotels, airports, and cafes have security built in. Truth is, they don’t. And the most trusting users? Millennials.

Why Public WiFi is not Safe

When you log into an insecure network you are enabling hackers to steal your personal information as it travels through the web.

So, where can public WiFi be found?

  • Airports and Airplanes
  • Trains, Subways & Buses
  • Transport stations
  • Hotels and Hostels
  • Cafes
  • Local Libraries
  • Public parks and other public locations offering the internet
  • Tourist attractions
  • Commercial hubs
  • Home networks

Hackers can then sell your data on the dark web for profit, or even worse use that same information to begin draining your bank accounts. After all, according to that Norton survey, one in five users have logged their banking information whilst using public WiFi.

How do they do it? Here are just some of the ways that hackers can trace your information using public WiFi.

Fake Hotspots

This is one of the easiest ways that hackers get your login details and passwords. Setting up a fake hotspot with a name like “McDonald’s WiFi” near the same fast-food chain will have you thinking their range is just really good, when really their WiFi has range nowhere near that good. The scary thing is that those hackers can track all of your keystrokes which include logins and passwords to social media accounts, emails, and even banking accounts.

Fake Websites

These are a little bit harder to spot. Man in the middle attacks occur when cybercriminals stealthily take possession of a public WiFi network and create a fake website which looks like a credible website you usually use. They then wait for you to enter your login details and steal your information.

Malware

Hackers are often known to create malware where they send you fake invitations for updates using words like “Google” to make you believe the update is credible. Instead of an update they will send malware to steal access to your laptop, computer, tablet or smartphone and can even turn on your camera and microphone.

Sniffing

A WiFi sniffer is used to “sniff out” WiFi networks and in turn monitor all its traffic, analyzing sensitive details from users browsing the internet.

What sensitive details, you might be asking. You may not use public WiFi to log onto your internet banking, but that’s not all hackers have an interest in.

Here is a list of all the information that might be at risk when using public WiFi.

  • The websites you visit
  • Your location
  • Personal communication (chats and messages)
  • Emails
  • Who you are communicating with
  • Your documents
  • Your photos
  • Logins
  • Passwords

Protect Yourself When Using Public WiFi with a VPN

There are steps that you can take when it comes to protecting your information when you use public WiFi. Here are the best tips to do so.

Always Use a VPN

This is the number one way, and by far the most effective way, to secure your sensitive information from hackers when using public WiFi. A VPN works by encrypting your internet connection and tunneling it to a different IP address so that nobody, not even your internet provider, network owner, or third-party snoops can see what you’re doing online.

But not all VPNs are created equally. Some perform better than others in keeping your information completely safe, while others lack the features to do so. There are plenty of cheap and even free options around, but a majority of those will not do much in protecting your sensitive information. Stick with us to find out which VPNs are the best when it comes to using public WiFi.

So, what should you look for in a VPN to make sure you have a secure connection? Look for the following features:

  • Strong encryption
  • Large amount of servers
  • Trusted military-grade protection
  • Malware protection
  • No logs
  • Easy setup
  • Fantastic customer service

A great VPN will not only have a very strong encryption from the get-go, but the best VPN service provider will be able to scan and analyze malware threats before they get to you, blocking and deleting them. Your VPN should not keep logs of your internet activity to ensure your online experience is completely anonymous. The installation should be a breeze and should only take a few minutes.

Lastly, if you do come across any issues, you really should have 24-hour support, especially if you find yourself outside your usual location.

The other ways in which you can protect yourself when using WiFi include:

Turn off Your WiFi When You Don’t Use It

Although you may not have connected to a particular network, if there is a hotspot within range, your computer is still transmitting data to that network. Even though there might be security measures which stop your information being compromised, hackers can get around these measures. So if you’re using programs like Word that do not need internet, make sure to turn off that WiFi. An added bonus is that you will save on battery life.

Stop Sharing

Turn off sharing by going to your Control Panel or system preferences. Sharing your files and data is not something you want to do online.

Use ‘https’ Websites

Whenever visiting your favorite websites make sure to always use the https option, especially those that require logging in or passwords. Any URL which starts with “https” means that it is encrypted.

Do Not Enter Personal Information

Always avoid entering any personal information including your home address, social security numbers, and banking information.

Keep Your Antivirus Updated

Make sure your system updated and any possible apps patched.

Use 2-factor authentication for logging into your accounts

Many sites and apps now use two-factor authentication meaning that even though you’ll type in your password, they will send a code to your mobile for you to enter to ensure that it really is you.

All of these tips are handy when logging into public WiFi, but the single most important one you need to remember is the first tip. Always use a VPN. We cannot stress this enough. No other steps taken will be able to give you anywhere near as much protection as the use of a VPN can.

Choosing the right VPN can be tricky, so we have narrowed it down for you. Check them out below.

The Top VPNs for a Safe Public WiFi Connection

#1 ExpressVPN

This is by far the most trusted VPN service provider out there, and with over 2,000 servers in 94 countries, there is no denying that these numbers help maintain the high performance that Express VPN delivers.

Usually, when you turn on a VPN your internet connection will begin to lag, and let’s face it, public WiFi isn’t that fast to begin with. You can be sure that this will not happen with ExpressVPN as you will never even notice the difference.

Here are some more reasons ExpressVPN is the best in the business:

  • 256-bit encryption
  • Available on Windows, iOS, Mac, Android, and Linux
  • Instant setup and easy-to-use interface
  • Unrestricted access to Netflix
  • Connects to more than 90 countries
  • Fastest and most secure VPN
  • Works in China
  • 24/7 customer support
  • 30-day money-back guarantee
  • Multiple connections per account
  • Unlimited bandwidth

On top of that, the installation of your ExpressVPN will only take minutes. Their easy-to-use interface means you don’t have to be a tech genius to get things going. However, trouble can always be around the corner so it is reassuring to know that you have 24-hour support from their incredibly helpful team. That’s right, unlike many other VPN services, you will be able to speak to a real person whenever you give them a call.

If you want to surf the net with ease, sign up for ExpressVPN as the best VPN for using public WiFi, today! ExpressVPN also offers a special deal, get 3 months free and 49% savings with their annual subscription plan.

Want to find out more? Check out the full review here

#2 Surfshark

Surfing public WiFi with Surfshark is not a problem. With Surfshark you get 500 servers in as many as 50 countries. This might not be as many as ExpressVPN, but Surfshark are still new to the game and their list of servers is growing rapidly. They have headquarters in Hong Kong which means they are in no way obligated to hand over your logging details to anyone. The best part about Surfshark has to be their blazing fast speeds and the ability to hook up as many devices as you like to one license.

Here are some more reasons as to why Surfshark offer a good VPN service for connecting to public WiFi:

  • Good download speeds
  • Zero logging
  • Unlimited simultaneous connections
  • Unlimited bandwidth
  • Unlimited platform protection
  • Some servers work with Netflix
  • Strong encryption
  • Unlimited server switching
  • Torrenting allowed

Want to find out more? Check out the full review here

#3 CyberGhost

CyberGhost deliver many more servers than Surfshark with over 3,000 of them in 58 countries. There are many other great features that CyberGhost offer as a VPN service including the ability to get your money back within 45 days, no questions asked, when you sign up with them for a three-year subscription.

You also get the handy kill switch feature which will end all of your online activity if and when your VPN connection drops.

Here are a few more reasons why CyberGhost made our list for safe browsing when connecting to public WiFi:

  • Strict no logs policy
  • 256-bit AES Encryption
  • Unlimited bandwidth and traffic
  • Automatic kill switch
  • Simultaneous connections on up to 7 devices
  • Easy to use

Want to find out more? Check out the full review here

The Bottom Line

Times have changed when it comes to connecting to public WiFi. Living in a world where public WiFi is widely available, you can go virtually anywhere and find a WiFi connection from public transport, airports, hotels, and popular tourist destinations.

However, there are risks involved. More cybercriminals are turning to the likes of public WiFi as a platform for tracking and stealing the information of unsuspecting users. This can range from your address details to your location and even your documents and financial account information.

The solution to this problem lies in a reputable and reliable VPN service such as ExpressVPN. Only then can you be sure that your public WiFi experience will be safe and secure.