We live in an era where the first thing we check after reaching a public place is “free Wi-Fi options near me.” Every second person sitting in a coffee shop would either be using a laptop or a mobile, and these places have become a second office for many people.
Most users on these networks would share sensitive information from their devices. They do not realize that hackers are most active at such places and can cause serious trouble if they hack someone’s device.
A survey conducted by Cisco concludes that “By 2023, there will be 628 million global public Wi-Fi hotspots, 4 times more than in 2018 (169 million)”. It means that the threats of using public Wi-Fi are only going to increase with time. To ensure that you do not fall into this trap, you must know about these potential threats.
In this article, we share the list of potential risks of using public Wi-Fi and ways to safeguard yourself from these kinds of security risks.
#1 Man-In-The-Middle Attacks
Man-in-the-Middle (MitM) attack is one of the most common threats to public networks. It is essentially a form of eavesdropping. In this technique, when your laptop/computer makes a connection with the internet, the attacker (or middle-man) tries to access the data and read them.
It makes all your personal information, payment details, and other details vulnerable and available to them. They can also install malware or spyware on your device and manipulate your data package, leaving you at risk.
#2 Access to Personal Information
Public Wi-Fi does not need any login information, thus, lacking authentication. It makes it easier for hackers to get access to an unsecured device using the same network.
For instance, if the file-sharing option of your device is turned on, then hackers can easily connect with your device. All your details and information will be easily available to hackers without your control. Everything right from your email, social media information, bank accounts, and every other information that can land you in serious trouble will be available to them.
#3 Snooping and Sniffing
In this technique, hackers use a software tool called a packet analyzer or packet sniffer to eavesdrop on Wi-Fi signals. Tools like Wireshark are available on the internet that helps them and makes the whole process much more manageable. Thus, attackers can access everything you do online, from what you are viewing on the internet to capturing your login credentials. They can even hijack some of your accounts via Wi-Fi Snooping.
#4 Malware Distribution
It is yet another risk to which you are exposed when using public Wi-Fi. Software vulnerabilities allow hackers to slip malware onto your computer without your knowledge. They can install it in the form of worms, viruses, ransomware, adware, and trojan horses.
To achieve this, the hackers would use ads on every website that you visit. The website might not be running the ads, but the Wi-Fi service will overlay them on the top of the website. These ads would usually disappear after you disconnect yourself from this public Wi-Fi. In some serious cases, they would install malware on your device that would last across all connections.
#5 Session Hijacking
Though session hijacking or sidejacking is not a common threat, some hijackers might use it to attack your system. In this, the hackers use packet sniffing and then target your data packets that have cookies. Once the attacker gets this information, they can mirror your system on their own and hijack your connection.
For Example- If the hackers hijack your system after you log in to your bank’s website. They can replicate your screen on theirs. Banks would confuse it with your computer, and since you are already logged in, the hacker would get access to everything you have in your account.
#6 Shoulder Surfing
As the term suggests, shoulder surfing is a form of social engineering used by hackers to gather crucial data by looking over someone’s shoulder and using their credentials. They secretly look at your screen while you use the web in a public space and will memorize your data.
Also, they look for people who would leave their devices unattended for some time, and as soon as they get a chance, they would physically install some malware on that device. Thus, it would help if you were careful of your surroundings.
How to Avoid Public Wi-Fi Security Risks?
It might be difficult to avoid public Wi-Fi during some situations. In such cases, you should ensure that you are aware of the threats and at least well-protected. Here are some of the tips that you can follow to ensure a safe connection while using public Wi-Fi:
#1 Verify the Network; Configure and Turn off Sharing
Hackers are clever, so it is best to surf the internet smartly. Make sure to read the name of the network carefully and check the legitimacy with the employee. Hackers often set up fake networks to hijack people’s devices. So, you should always be aware and avoid becoming a victim.
Secondly, check if your sharing preferences are turned on and if you need them. If not, then it would be best to turn off the file-sharing option. You can disable it from the system preferences or control panel.
#2 Use a VPN
You can also use a Virtual private network for security measures while accessing any public Wi-Fi. It will make sure that you are secure when logging in from a public network.
VPN encrypts the data traffic and acts as a protected tunnel between the survey and the client (browser). It blocks the hacker from using all the data that passes from the tunnel, and they will not be able to access your information and track activities that you do online.
Another benefit of using VPN is that they mask your IP with their IP address from a different location, making the system more secure. The only thing is that you should make sure that the VPN you are using provides high security. Some free VPNs available in the market are not as secure and will add no benefit to your purpose.
#3 Stick With HTTPS
If you can not use a VPN, you should try only to visit encrypted websites. It will help you from protecting your data from some of the threats mentioned above.
An encrypted website will have HTTPS at the beginning of the address. Any data submitted through these websites will be safe from tampering and eavesdropping. You can also check for the padlock symbol on your browser’s address bar to check if the site uses encryption.
#4 Keep the Firewall Enabled
Firewalls prevent hackers from accessing your system externally in an unauthorized way. Though it does not provide complete protection, it is better to keep it enabled.
A firewall also protects your device from data-based malware by acting as a barrier. It checks if the data packets coming from your network are safe or not. Malicious or unsafe data packets are blocked by it. Thus, safeguarding your system and data from any attack.
Usually, people switch it off because of the annoying notifications and pop-ups. If you want to restart it or check if it is enabled, you can go to the control panel of your windows device and select “Windows Firewall” in the “System and Security.”
For Mac systems, go to “System Preferences,” then “Security & Privacy,” and then enable the “Firewall” tab.
#5 Use Antivirus
Installing antivirus software on your system can help you by detecting any malware entering your system. You need to make sure that you use the updated or the latest version of antivirus software. It will alert you when a known virus enters your device or if there is a case of any malicious activity.
#6 Use 2-factor Authentication
A lot of websites use a security feature called two-factor authentication (2FA). It is yet another authentication method along with your passwords. Sometimes, you will have to install a specialized app like Google Authenticator to enable this authentication. Some send a unique code on your phone once you enter your username and password.
In this case, even if a hacker attempts to use your account with your login information, they will be unable to do so.
We live in an era where even after taking a lot of precautions, there are chances that you may come across issues at certain times. Thus, it is advisable to know about the threats that you may come across.
The best way to avoid these threats is by completely staying away from public Wi-Fi and using private hotspots or mobile networks. But, we understand that sometimes you can not avoid such situations and must check the free Wi-Fi options. In such cases, you can use the above-listed precautions to maximize your chance of being secure.