Public Wi-Fi Security
Explained

Why is public Wi-Fi Security a hot topic? According to a survey by Symantec, 92% of adults (70% of tablet owners and 53% of smartphone/mobile phone owners) utilize public Wi-Fi hotspots almost daily.

Following another cybersecurity survey by Statista, we found that 45 percent of working adults in the United States trusted the public Wi-Fi network of a frequently visited public facility, such as a neighborhood coffee shop, to keep their information safe. 

Checking your social media account or reading a few news articles while using public Wi-Fi is ok. However, accessing sensitive info such as email or bank accounts can be dangerous when using public Wi-Fi.

What Is Public Wi-Fi?

Public Wi-Fi is accessible in various locations, including airports, coffee shops, restaurants, malls, and hotels, and allows you to access an internet connection for free. 

People connect to these “hotspots” without thinking since they are so prevalent. Public Wi-Fi hotspots are far too convenient for people to ignore, and hence people even fall for unsecured Wi-Fi networks and put their data at risk.

Types Of Public Wi-Fi

Public Wi-Fi networks have two categories: secured and unsecured. Most consumers, however, are unable to distinguish between a secure and an insecure Wi-Fi network.

  1. To obtain access to a secured network, the user must agree to legal terms and conditions or register for an account with their email address and create a log-in and password; some public networks will even charge a fee or demand a store purchase.
  2. On the other hand, unsecured networks can be linked to a short distance without security features such as a password or log-in. Moreover, they never ask users to register or agree to any terms and conditions. They are freely accessible, and if your Wi-Fi is set to “connect automatically,” you will get automatically connected to these Wi-Fi networks.

Public Wi-Fi Security: Unsecured Networks

Because of the nature of wireless Wi-Fi networks, hackers or criminals only need to be close to an access point where they can listen in on and collect network communications. Therefore, access point encryption that is improperly configured or services that allow data to be delivered without encryption represent a significant threat to user data.

A study from Kaspersky unveils that nearly a quarter (approximately 24.7%) of the world’s public Wi-Fi hotspots do not use any encryption. It is essential to understand that that data exchanged via public Wi-Fi can readily be intercepted. Many smartphones and laptop users put their personal information, digital identity, and money in danger while using unsecured public Wi-Fi.

Furthermore, the risks increase if appropriate security, an anti-malware program, or a VPN does not protect the user’s device.

Risks for Public Wi-Fi Security

The threats to public Wi-Fi security have been steadily increasing, with cybercriminals taking advantage of the user’s desire to stay online all the time. According to Pew Research Center, three in every ten US adults say that they crave to stay online all the time. 

On the other hand, businesses are increasingly concerned about keeping their employees safe, whether traveling or working remotely during the Covid-19. The concern with public Wi-Fi security is pretty straightforward, i.e., they are extremely risky – But how? Let’s go ahead and look at some of the common risks in public Wi-Fi security.

MitM Attacks

One of the most common cyberattacks is the Man-in-the-Middle (MitM) attack. MitM attack happens mostly when you become a victim of an unsecured public Wi-Fi network.

A MitM attack is essentially a sort of eavesdropping. Data is sent from point A (for example, a computer) to point B (let’s say, a service or a website) when a machine connects to the Internet, and network vulnerabilities can allow an attacker to slip in between these transmissions and “read” them. Therefore, what you believed was private is no longer private.

Malware Distribution 

Thanks to software flaws, there are also ways for attackers to sneak malware onto your computer without you even knowing it. A software vulnerability is a security gap or a hole in a computer operating system or software program.

Hackers can utilize this flaw by building code to target a specific vulnerability and infecting your device with malware. Viruses, worms, Trojan horses, ransomware, adware, etc., are all examples of malware that can be injected into your system when you connect to an unsecured public Wi-Fi network. 

Unencrypted Networks

When you connect to a website that uses encryption, the data you send and receive is encrypted with a secure key. If someone intercepted the data without the key, they would be unable to read it since it would appear unreadable computer code.

However, not all websites provide encryption. The HTTP prefix, which occurs before the domain name, indicates this. It’s an encrypted site if the URL begins with HTTPS. It is not encrypted if the web address only contains HTTP.

Session Hijacking 

Another concern to public Wi-Fi security is session hijacking. After you log in to your bank’s website, for example, hackers could hijack your connection. An attacker intercepts data about your machine and its connection to websites or other services in this situation. Once the attacker has that information, he can set up his computer to look like yours and take over the connection.

From the bank’s perspective, it would appear to be your computer, and because you logged in already, the attacker would have full access to your account.

Use of Wi-Fi for Illegal Activities 

Cybercriminals can use infiltrators with access to an unprotected network, creating a breach in public Wi-Fi security. Following this, they can use the network’s capacity to conduct operations and activities that may have legal ramifications for the network’s owners or hosts.

Using a network to transmit illicit materials, for example, might be done without the knowledge of the network administrators or even the network owners. But, again, this might end badly, with public Wi-Fi security compromised and providers facing charges and repercussions.

Snooping And Sniffing

Snooping and sniffing is as unethical as it sounds. Nevertheless, cybercriminals can purchase sophisticated software kits and even equipment to aid them in intercepting Wi-Fi signals. This method is snooping and sniffing. It can give attackers access to everything you do online, from reading entire web pages you’ve visited (including any information you may have entered while on that webpage) to capturing your log-in credentials and even hijacking your accounts.

Stolen Bandwidths 

Cybercriminals and hackers can compromise public Wi-Fi security and profit from these public hotspots by taking advantage of the free bandwidth. However, it can quickly grow into much more – hackers can leverage this connection to allow exponential log-ins from unauthorized and unwelcome visitors, causing system overload by exceeding bandwidth limits.

Malicious Hotspots 

Because the name seems credible, these “rogue access points” deceive people into joining what they believe is a legitimate network. For example, let’s say you’re staying at the GoodNyte Inn and wish to use the hotel’s wireless network. When you click on “GoodNyte Inn,” you may assume you’ve chosen the right one, but you haven’t. Instead, you’ve linked to a rogue hotspot put up by fraudsters, who now have access to your data.

Wi-Fi Honeypots

A Wi-Fi “honeypot” is a mobile hotspot set up by hackers and cybercriminals to entice and snare anyone looking for an internet connection in the region. These honeypots, which can compromise public Wi-Fi security by simulating a well-known public Wi-Fi network such as Starbucks’, can be built by experienced hackers. As a result, these hotspots can appear as ordinary public Wi-Fi hotspots with nothing suspicious about them.

If you find yourself in this situation, make sure you ask the establishment’s personnel essential questions to avoid being a victim of these hackers. What is the actual name of your wireless network hotspot, for example? What is the procedure for logging in? What am I going to see after that? Is there anything else that network users should be aware of?

Shoulder Surfing 

Not necessarily a network compromise, but still primary public Wi-Fi security occurrence. Shoulder surfing is when cybercriminals steal personal information from people while they use ATMs, cellphones, tablets, and other devices by monitoring, filming, listening, and, in some circumstances, hacking them. 

As the phrase implies, these cyber thieves are peeking over their victims’ shoulders and then exploiting that information to break into their accounts. For example, you are at risk of being a victim if you use an ATM, use your credit card at a petrol station, or even buy groceries using a debit card.

How to Ensure Public Wi-Fi Security?

When utilizing public Wi-Fi, the best approach to ensure the security of your data is to use a virtual private network (VPN) on your PC, Mac, smartphone, or tablet. To safeguard public Wi-Fi security, follow these guidelines to keep your data safe if you must use a hotspot.

Don’t

  1. Allow your Wi-Fi to connect to networks automatically.
  2. Log into any account that holds sensitive information through an app. Instead, go to the website and make sure it’s using HTTPS before logging in.
  3. Leave Wi-Fi connectivity and Bluetooth on when you are not using them.
  4. Log in to websites that store sensitive information about you, such as your financial or healthcare accounts.
  5. Connect to a non-password-protected network

Do

  1. Turn off file sharing when not in use.
  2. Ensure that only HTTPS-enabled sites are visited.
  3. When you’re through with an account, log out. Please do not leave your accounts signed in when they are idle.
  4. Make sure your public Wi-Fi connections are private by using a VPN (a virtual private network).
  5. Treat all Wi-Fi links with suspicion and always try to use a mobile device (Wi-Fi are inherently unsecured)
  6. Use Multi-factor authentication

Final Words

The issue with public Wi-Fi security is that the vulnerabilities are numerous. While business owners may believe they are providing a vital service to their consumers, the security on these networks is likely to be inadequate or nonexistent because employees are uninformed and not well-trained. 

With Right-Hand Cybersecurity, you can fill in these cyber-awareness gaps. For example, Right-Hand’s real-life scenario training includes public Wi-Fi security simulations to make sure users choose the right networks and know what to share and access in such cases. 

See what else we can do to help you and your workforce build stronger cyberculture, in your offices or remote workplaces, by scheduling a demo today!

How to safely use public wi-fi? We have a simulation for that.