Many of us are all too aware of the chances of our smartphone or laptop being snatched in the street but are ignorant of the risks we take connecting to unsecured public WiFi hotspots, like those available at Dunkin Donuts stores all over the country. These unstable networks are notorious hangouts for less savory online characters who capitalize on their lack of security and exploit users’ vulnerabilities.
When you connect to the public WiFi you’re exposing yourself to a range of possible threats, including malware, identity theft, and credit card fraud. Although you may feel safe using your local library’s WiFi or connecting via your academic institute’s hotspot, that is a purely false sense of security and you could stand to lose all your sensitive data, private communications, and personal files. This is true of public WiFi connections all over the world, and particularly in the following locations.
1. Cafes, Coffee Shops, and Restaurants
Although public WiFi security is steadily improving, it’s not yet reached a point that we would recommend using it without a VPN and still be able to sleep at night. It’s a couple of years now since Starbucks was the victim of a hacker who then used all the devices connected to their public WiFi to mine for cryptocurrency but that doesn’t mean all similar threats are a thing of the past.
Coffee shops and cafes have been linked to budding writers and undercover journalists for decades and now it seems every freelancer and his mother is sipping cappuccinos while staring off into cyberspace. Unfortunately, having so many people connected to a single network and so many devices within close proximity of one another means it’s rich pickings for hackers and other cybercriminals.
While there are some safe browsing practices you can adopt to limit your vulnerability, such as sticking to HTTPS sites and staying alert for fake WiFi hotspots, a VPN is the best way to keep your banking details and sensitive data under lock and key.
2. Airports and Railway Stations
Delays and signal failures are as common in today’s technological age as they were back in the heady days before the internet, but they’re somewhat easier to deal with now that you connect to a free public WiFi connection and surf while you wait. It’s too tempting to resist, but seeing all those personal details and particles of sensitive data flying backwards and forwards is too much for most cybercriminals, who just can’t wait to get their hands on it.
Lucky for them, then, that many of the WiFi hotspots in transit lounges and stations are still largely unencrypted and therefore easy to hack. In fact, there are a host of websites out there just begging to show you how to hack into a public WiFi connection and get free data, but this is entry-level stuff and nowhere as frightening as having your identity stolen or your PayPal account used to book a luxury vacation. While it’s easy to let yourself believe that such things would never happen to you, if you’re a regular user of public WiFi connections in airports or other transport hubs, the chances are they can and they will.
Although recent research indicates that public WiFi connections are becoming safer simply because the internet itself is becoming more secure, so many of the risks that once caused concern have now disappeared. Nevertheless, as we said earlier, we’re not yet in a place where browsing on public WiFi without some form of cybersecurity, and preferably a reliable Virtual Private Network, would be advisable.
With that echoing silence and studious air, libraries and other centers of learning tend to make us feel protected, cocooned within a world of words and clever ideas. Sadly, cybercriminals rarely have much time for such old-fashioned and outdated notions and a library WiFi connection is liable to be just as dangerous as the one in the restaurant next door.
The atmosphere of a library means people tend to frequent them to perform administerial duties like filing their taxes or transferring money online but, unfortunately, there’s nothing stopping cybercriminals from watching from over your shoulder – either a physical or a virtual one.
As New York’s Public Library warns, “The Library’s wireless network is not secure. Information sent from or to your laptop can be captured by anyone else with a wireless device and the appropriate software, within three hundred feet”.
4. Gyms and Fitness Centers
While it’s unlikely you’re going to be logging into your online banking profile while sweating it out on the rowing machine, stranger things have, so I’m told, happened at sea so we won’t rule it out. If, as may be more probable, you only use the WiFi at the gym to log into your Amazon Prime account to listen to music and watch movies, you’re still leaving yourself vulnerable to cyber attacks.
Imagine you spent a productive hour at the gym only to discover when you log back into your Amazon Prime account at home, that someone else has run up thousands of dollars renting and buying films on your account? Not only have you lost money, but you’re likely to lose a few nights’ sleep to boot as you fathom out how to change your profile and deny your local hackers’ further access to your subscriptions.
Even if you’re not sharing a lot of sensitive data while you’re at the local fitness center, anything you do share is ripe for hacking.
We mentioned a false sense of security before and it seems such self-delusion is particularly common among hotel guests, many of whom believe that if they used a cable to connect to the hotel’s WiFi then they must be safe from hackers! The fact that malware could be in the cable itself obviously never occurred to them. One of the biggest problems with hotel WiFi networks is that guests potentially have hours to spend browsing and hacking without arousing suspicion, thereby making them even more vulnerable than those already discussed.
Hotel WiFi hackers have been both active and successful according to several news reports and one in particular. Back in 2014, cybersecurity company Kaspersky discovered a complex hack in which CEOs, executives, and government agencies were targeted in a clever campaign known as Dark Hotel. By infiltrating hotel’s public WiFi networks, the cybercriminals behind Dark Hotel were able to install malware onto their victim’s devices that enabled them to access sensitive data, including business reports and financial information.
Dark Hotel highlights the level of sophistication of such public WiFi attacks and reinforces why business travelers, in particular, should ensure they have a subscription with one of the best VPNs for international travel.
Playing Safe on Public WiFi
Even if the most sensitive piece of data you may have on your laptop is your secure login details for a dating site, you still don’t want it falling into the wrong hands, especially if your partner doesn’t know about it, which is why some element of online security is necessary if you’re using public WiFi connections in any of the locations listed. While a VPN is really the only comprehensive cybersecurity solution, there are few other steps you can take to safeguard your device and your data.
- Ensure your software is up-to-date and you have all the latest security patches installed
- Avoid visiting unencrypted sites by using HTTPS only
- Use a firewall and antivirus combination to protect you against unauthorized access and potential malware infections
- Disable file sharing to keep your documents from prying eyes
- Use complex passwords and change them regularly (a decent password generator like that included in an ExpressVPN subscription is a great way to stay on top of multiple accounts).
Get Virtual Virtuosity with ExpressVPN
A quick google search for the best VPNs will soon have your head spinning with adverts and options and, if you’ve never used one before, you’d be well advised to check out our beginners guide to VPNs. If however, you’re already familiar with the basic premise of a VPN, you’ll understand why fast speeds, top-class encryption, no-logging, and a base in the British Virgin Islands make ExpressVPN one of the most robust and effective cybersecurity solutions around.
For the past 20 years, ExpressVPN has worked on improving its product while contributing to research into online security and launching initiatives to boost the reputation of the VPN industry as a whole. In addition to cutting-edge technology, ExpressVPN has put its heart and soul into securing freedom of speech and privacy of movement online. Its utter dependability is one of its best features while the fact that efforts to secure data logs from ExpressVPN have proved unsuccessful is extremely encouraging.
ExpressVPN is currently making a generous offer to any new clients signing up for a 12-month subscription, by giving them an extra three months for free.
This user-friendly piece of software is surprisingly powerful and any problems are easily resolved using ExpressVPN’s outstanding customer support service.
If you want to continue flaunting yourself on public WiFi hotspots in your local coffee shop or library, by all means, go ahead – after all, you know the risks – but if you’d rather keep your account passwords and personal habits to yourself, practice safe surfing with ExpressVPN.
Although the internet itself may be evolving into a safer place thanks to better encryption, it gets more dangerous by the day thanks to growing cybercrime. Even password-secured public WiFi connections can leave you exposed, and unsecured networks, like those found in airports for example, effectively strip you naked and parade you through the center of the virtual universe. To avoid online humiliation, crime, identify theft and ransomware demands, a robust VPN service with cutting-edge encryption is essential.
Even if you feel no one would be interested in the fact that you spend hours online browsing for knitting patterns, when you start receiving adverts for wool every time you connect, you might want to think again.
While most of us don’t have highly sensitive, classified documents saved on our laptops, many of us do store our bank account information, subscription details and other private data which could damage us should it end up in the wrong hands. Getting a subscription with a service such as ExpressVPN is the virtual equivalent of turning your house alarm on when you leave home so stop leaving your virtual front door wide open and cover up with ExpressVPN.