Why Public WiFi is a Scary Place for Online Surfing

May 14, 2019
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article by Sarah Turner author

Universal WiFi - sounds like a dream, right? Wrong! As we increasingly rely on these public hotspots, we are unwittingly sharing our data on insecure networks. If you're guilty of connecting without consideration, it's time to learn to protect yourself!

Public WiFi is a necessary evil that has infiltrated our lives and – let’s face it – made them infinitely more convenient. Now, we can access our email on the train or dive into our work projects at the local café. Today, over 179 million free WiFi hotspots exist, projected to rise to a staggering 542 million by 2020.

A 2016 study revealed that US adults spend 10 hours 39 minutes per day consuming onscreen media. As so many of our lives leave us always on-the-go, a significant amount of that time is on Public Wi-Fi.

So, what if you knew that using these networks could be the equivalent of handing your most sensitive data to cybercriminals? This unfortunate drawback of open hotspots has been exploited to such an extent that they now pose a significant privacy risk.

In December, a Starbucks in Buenos Aires felt the full force of this threat when it uncovered that an illegal script was recruiting network users into mining cryptocurrency. Though this example made the news, other individual crimes are committed over Public WiFi on a daily basis.

Anyone Can See Transmitted Information if They Want To

The problem with WiFi hotspots is their open nature. While home internet provides encryption via the router, public networks do not afford this luxury. When you connect to a hotspot, all of your data is transferred through the system, leaving it visible to potential prying eyes.

Even if you solely access secure domains, your information is still at risk, as your traffic broadcasts to the web connection before the website. Consider how many sensitive details you input when using your phone/tablet/computer on-to-go. Highly coveted data includes:

  • Account Passwords
  • Bank Details
  • Addresses
  • Personal Habits

Today, cybercriminals are so aware of the ease of this hack, they even set up rogue hotspots specifically to farm data. These fake WiFi connections often mimic popular providers, such as Starbucks. You can connect and browse as usual, without realizing you’re falling victim to theft.

Identity Theft Made Easy

You may be wondering why criminals would be interested in seemingly valueless information about yourself. In today’s world, you don’t need access to credit cards to profit from identity theft. By intercepting your online activities, thieves can create a realistic profile of your life and use it for their own financial gain.

One example is fraudulently gaining access to your bank account. With a comprehensive overview of your life, it’s easy to bypass the security questions required for entry. If this doesn’t work, they can also apply for loans or credit using your identity – resulting in complex police interference, even if you don’t suffer a monetary loss.

Protect Yourself when You Use Public Wi-Fi with a VPN

Fortunately, with one easy download, you can bypass this threat entirely. Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) are a software package with multiple benefits. One of their main advantages is keeping you safe on public WiFi.

A VPN works by acting as a middleman between your device and the WiFi hotspot. It re-routes your traffic through an alternative server, enciphering this initial tunnel with military grade encryption. Any prying eyes on the network will only be able to see the scrambled code, not your actual information.

This simple protocol can also be used for other reasons:

  • Access international content on streaming sites like Netflix
  • Protect from government snooping
  • Increase overall online security

We reviewed some of the best VPN services on the market, so you don’t have to give up the convenience of using public WiFi.

ExpressVPN

ExpressVPN is a popular and trusted provider that offers a sleek service, with unmatched speeds and reliability. With a global server network spanning 94 countries, you have access to a world of content – and never have to queue for a server. The company puts customers first, with a comprehensive support service available. Their instant chat saw responses within the hour, plus they provide extensive literature on the product.

Pros

  • 99% Uptime Guarantee
  • Impressive Speeds
  • Responsive Customer Service

Cons:

  • Limited Additional Security

Price:

$12.95 per month
$6.67pm for 15 months – plus an extended money-back period of 45-days
30-day money-back guarantee

NordVPN

NordVPN is known for their impressive dedication to privacy. Alongside, their military-grade VPN encryption, they provide a plethora of add-on features. Most notably, they offer dedicated servers, customized explicitly for specific activities – such as streaming and torrenting. Their DoubleVPN routes your data via two servers to avoid connection drops. Plus, they offer a kill switch and auto-connect to make sure you are never connected to the web without VPN protection.

Pros

  • Compatible with Over 20 Platforms
  • Optimized Servers
  • DoubleVPN

Cons

  • Inconsistent Speeds

Price:
$11.95 per month

$5.75 with an annual subscription

30-day money-back guarantee

HideMyAss

While HideMyAss is not the fastest provider out there, it boasts an incredible number of servers. This means you’ll never have to wait to get connected. Offering numerous auto-configuration options, you can choose the ‘Quick Connect’ for the nearest and fastest server. Alternatively, ‘Freedom Mode’ finds you the closest country with free-speech and minimal censorship. Unfortunately, major streaming sites are still blocked – as is P2P file-sharing.

Pros

  • 730+ Servers
  • Freedom Mode

Cons

  • Netflix & Hulu still blocked
  • Inconsistent Speeds

Price
$11.52 per month
$6.55pm with an annual subscription
30-day money-back guarantee

ZenMate

ZenMate is a lesser-known provider that, thus far, has managed to escape the VPN bans on sites like Netflix. Although that have a limited server network, the speeds are still consistent. Their Smart Locations feature offers optimized servers for each activity, to further streamline the client. Unfortunately, ZenMate is based in Germany, which is known for its strict copyright laws. Because of this, data retention is an issue.

Pros:

  • Smart Locations
  • Netflix Access

Cons:

  • Small Server Network
  • Subject to Data Retention Laws

Price:

$11.95 per month

$7.49 with an annual subscription
14-day money-back guarantee

HotSpot Shield

HotSpot Shield is the ideal backup option if the above providers don’t work. They only offer 20 server locations, with only one option in the Middle East. The speed is generally good, but we found some issues streaming HD. One major advantage is the malware and ad-blocking protection, which isn’t seen in many VPN clients! Unfortunately, the company lacks transparency surrounding its service, making it difficult to get a clear overview.

Pros:

  • Malware & Ad-Blocking Protection

Cons:

  • No 4k Streaming
  • Lack of Transparency

Price:

$12.99 per month
$5.99 with an annual subscription
30-day money-back guarantee

Paid vs. Free VPN for Wi-Fi – Which is Better

There are many free VPNs on the market. With such an agreeable price tag, it can be tempting to opt for these no-cost options. Unfortunately, these VPN clients are severely reduced in capacity and offer no guaranteed protection for public WiFi networks.

Free VPNs don’t have the investment potential of paid clients, as they make money solely from advertising. The service is also prone to connection drops, which will leave your data as unprotected as you would be without a VPN.

Similarly, rumors of free VPN providers selling customer logs to marketing agencies add an additional risk to using these clients. The threat to your data from this practice completely nullifies any benefit you get from the encryption protocol!

Protect Your Data on Public WiFi

The threats from public WiFi is not a new revelation. Examples and anecdotes about identity theft and rogue hotspots are infinite. It’s no longer a viable excuse to claim ignorance or technological illiteracy.

Using a VPN is a straightforward and accessible way to stay safe on public WiFi, that even the biggest technophobes can use easily.

We recommend ExpressVPN as the best service for open WiFi hotspots, thanks to its impressive service and longstanding reputation within the world of online security.