When out and about and you need an internet connection but are all out of data, a public Wi-Fi hotspot is the only option. However, before you do connect, it is important to understand the risks of connecting to public or unknown Wi-Fi, especially when there is sensitive data on your mobile phone.
Today, Wi-Fi standards are flawed, and one of the biggest threats against free Wi-Fi is the ability for hackers to get between you and the connection. This means you may end up sending information to the hacker, and the hacker has access to every piece of information you send out. That includes texts, emails, phone numbers, card details and more. But despite the many warnings surrounding public Wi-Fi, many people don’t understand the risks of connecting to it, regardless of what you are doing online. Even if you are just checking the latest news or train times, anything done on public Wi-Fi is not secure.
If a public Wi-Fi hotspot, such as one at a café, requires users to input a password, the hotspot is considered “secured” and conforms to the WPA (Wi-Fi Protected Access) standards for security. Networks that do not require a password or don’t have a strong password are the first signs of risk, and you might also be falling into a Wi-Fi “honeypot”. These are a fake hotspot which has been made to look like a secure network, and when you have connected, you give easy access to hackers who want your personal data.
Even when the hotspot isn’t fake, just unsecure, hackers can eavesdrop on the connection to gain information. Data which has been transmitted unencrypted can be intercepted by hackers who know what they are looking for. With many users of public Wi-Fi logging into a personal email account, social media accounts, or even their banking, that gives hackers plenty of information.
Clear text data being shared over unsecure Wi-Fi networks means other information can be stolen or modified. This includes intellectual property, media files and unencrypted messages. Though many smartphone users may think this information holds no personal data, they can be used to achieve identity theft.
Users on an unsecure Wi-Fi can take advantage of the network and resources and use it for illegal activities. This might not be damaging to the individual user but can lead to consequences for the network's host. For example, the movement of illicit materials or stolen property on the network without the knowledge of the owner can mean the providers pay the consequence.
When several users are connected to an unsecure network, cyber-criminals can spread malicious infections, malware and viruses. Spreading malicious software over an unsecure network allows the hackers to build a targeted attack and gives them a chance to distribute ransomware.
Another risk to be aware of with free Wi-Fi is that users can use it to steal bandwidth; overloading the system or staging a Denial of Service (DoS) attack. Free Wi-Fi means it is hard to regulate and monitor who is using, allowing it to be more open to these types of cyber-attacks. While many users are likely not part of this, a complacent attitude that the network is safe is unwise.
Measures to Take
If you have no other option than to connect to the Wi-Fi, have a few safety measures in place to protect your data, from using a VPN, investing in unlimited data and avoid the apps on your phone that have any personal information, such as mobile banking or emails. You should also go to settings and turn off the “connect automatically” to Wi-Fi.
It is beneficial to all smartphone users that they are aware of the risks of open, unknown and free Wi-Fi networks, especially as it is commonly found in towns and cities in the UK. Knowing the risks and steps, you can take to prevent. You might also consider investing in a phone privacy screen, so others around you can't see the actions you do on your phone.