The Risks of Public Hotspots: How Free WiFi Can Harm You

Risks of Public WiFi_header
Practically anywhere you go, you’ll come across free WiFi hotspots. However, this free service could spell trouble. We explore the security risks of public hotspots and what to consider before connecting to public WiFi.

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Risks of Free WiFi

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42 comments on “The Risks of Public Hotspots: How Free WiFi Can Harm You

      • Have to agree. When going ANYWHERE away from your home network, and you use anyone else’s wifi, make sure you have a VPN that is working and turned on.

        You can get various services for a few bucks a month or $60 to $70 USD a year. Yeah you can probably get “free” VPN, but why would you? Isn’t your identity and security and safety worth a couple of bucks a month?

        Get a VPN. Use it when accessing the internet through any wifi other than your own.

        Reply
      • That is correct, but it only covers browsing you do through the VPN. Some VPN clients set your system’s IP address to the VPN provided address, but I remember using some that do not, affecting instead only traffic done under the VPN connection.

        Reply
    • The brief answer is: since the VPN does end to end encryption, all the information is already encrypted by the time it leaves your computer over WiFi. So whether the attacker tries man in the middle or rogue hotspot, he cannot decrypt the data.

      The protection in HTTPS is almost as good, but if the service provider has allowed the NSA to connect an HTTPS proxy, they can still read it.

      Reply
    • BowDowntoZod says:

      Actually, it won’t….if you have a Windows phone. Windows phones do *NOT* support PPTP or L2TP VPN, which are the most commonly supported VPN technologies available and which *EVERY* network in the world supports…except that Microsoft has seen fit that their phones will *NOT* support the world’s most common network security technique. In fact, Windows mobile devices haven’t supported VPN since 6.5, which was the last Windows Mobile version with VPN capabilities. Sorry folks…no VPN for windows mobile devices!

      Reply
      • Hey there BowDowntoZod. 🙂 Just wanted to add to your post that MS is going to add VPN support to Windows Phone 8 in 2014. Here’s some more info: http://www.zdnet.com/microsoft-to-add-vpn-support-to-windows-phone-8-in-2014-7000017903/ .One more item that some people may not be aware of, if a VPN service only offers PPTP, don’t waste your time or money dude. Simple explanation is PPTP is cracked and basically useless. Look for VPNs offering LT2P/IPsec or OpenVPN. Personally, I prefer LT2P/IPsec over OpenVPN (4 right now) because if you know how to set it up correctly, it can be customized to your device (you do need basic networking skills tho). OpenVPN technology just installs itself but offers equally awesome protection. One last thing, although 128-bit encryption is fine, 256-bit is better. If you find a VPN service offering 512-bit encryption, definitely go for it if it’s not too expensive. 🙂 Happy Holidays 2 all man.

        Reply
        • Hey Joey, priced info there man, much appreciated. 512 encryption, woah! That’s going to be awesome.

          Happy New year to all

          Reply
  • Security London says:

    The best advice is just be careful what you do when you’re connected to a public hotspot. I tend to never do anything that involves the transmission of personal information; online banking, e-commerce transactions for example.

    Reply
    • Just staying away from things like that might not be enough. Suppose you only use a public WiFi for your email or Facebook and someone gets your password. They might find enough information from those two items to get to your banking and other personal information. Or if you use the same user name and password for your bank, then they can get into your financial records. The best bet for public WiFi is to never go to any site that requires you to pass any personal information.

      Reply
      • No, rather, while using public WiFi, only go to sites that pass the information in HTTPS when they require you to pass any personal information — including, of course, username/password.

        Reply
  • Thanks for the post! Watching what you do when you’re on public wifi is one of the best ways to maintain your security. Just be conscious and don’t venture into risky websites.

    Reply
    • Changing the DNS settings just changes who you pull name resolution from. Everything is still requested and sent openly. It does not help.

      Reply
    • I supposed Keyloggers should not be a problem as it requires physical access to your pc/notebook devices. But you still risk the danger of sniffers that will sniff the information over the air.

      Reply
    • BowDowntoZod says:

      Keylogging is an issue with your own personal device and not a network or ISP issue. If you are being attacked by a keylogger, then you have other problems you need to address!
      Your best defense against people eavesdropping on your WiFi communications (both open *AND* secure WiFi) is to use encryption. And the easiest encryption to use is VPN.
      Many routers today have VPN capability. If you’re a DIY kind of person, you may want to look into the amazing capabilities of MonoWall. Once you setup your VPN at home, it’s easy enough to implement VPN on your smartphone or tablet (Unless you have a Windows phone…they still do not support VPN…and from what I hear, they never will) Then setup your VPN to always connect whenever using WiFi…Heck! If you have a fast enough pipe to your home network, I’ld use VPN for *ALL* data, including cellular data! It was just shown at a recent security conference how easy it is to decrypt cellular data….So, it’ you’re really big on security (like me) then you should *ALWAYS* use VPN…think of it like a “network condom”

      Reply
    • When on public WiFi, you’re faced with the threats we mentioned in the infographic. We recommend to not log in to sensitive websites on unsecured WiFi unless you’re connect to a VPN.

      Reply
  • Concerned Party says:

    Is HTTPS a completely safe solution when using public wi-fi? Or are there still ways your information could be compromised, even if you strictly use HTTPS to access email, banking, or whatever?

    I’m only concerned with conventional threats here, not Government Spies who see me when I’m sleeping and know when I’m awake.

    Reply
    • Main thing we suggest is to avoid logging into sensitive accounts over unsecured public WiFi, unless you’re connected to a VPN.

      Reply
  • Well, since ZA has been providing a free AV software for more years than I can remember, maybe they would consider making an app for Android users for cell phones. A huge amout of people connect to wi-fi spots using their phones these days.

    Reply
  • Does using 3g on my smartphone instead of wifi eliminate these concerns. I don’t do any bank stuff on it anyway. I do read email alot with the 3g and the passwords are automatically sent when I open the email system [ 1 pop and 1 web]. I know this would present a risk if the phone was lost or stolen, since the phone itself is not password protected.

    Reply
    • Using your 3G on your smartphone is definitely more secure than accessing sensitive information over public WiFi. But this does not mean you should not be vigilant when browsing the Web on your smartphone!

      Reply
    • The important thing here is to make sure you don not access your email while on public WiFi. You do not want to access anything sensitive over unsecured public WiFi.

      Reply
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  • Frank N Earnest says:

    If the public wi-fi provider is exchanging certs (MIM attack) then how can you tell?

    I was in Pittsburgh last weekend trying to connect to hotel and public wi-fi from my mobile device, and got locked out of most of my email accounts due to constant authentication errors. What a pain! But a much more serious concern is whether my account username/passwords were being sniffed along the way. I don’t see how using a VPN would solve this problem except to confirm that a secure connection is not possible.

    Reply
    • Hi Frank. When you use public wifi, all your traffic can be sniffed and read easily. Using a VPN solves this problem by encrypting your network traffic so that even if someone is sniffing it, that person will only see gibberish and will not be able to decipher it. Using a VPN means all your traffic goes through a separate secure private network that is not accessible or readable by anyone.

      Reply
  • I’ve always been using public wifi. I’ve never thought that this could be in any way dangerous, to be honest, I didn’t even know about it. I’m describing my story as a warning to all of you. Long story short, I work during my travels so I’m forced to use public networks. I don’t pay attention to the sites I’m visiting, I don’t care if it’s a facebook, online store or my bank account. It went like this till one day, when I logged into my bank account to see my credit card balance. I froze for like 10 seconds, because I saw that a lot of money was missing and either that was some sort of a bug or I’ve been just simply robbed. After a short investigation It turned out somebody used my credit card details that were saved on my account at the shop I regularly use during my travels.

    It was then that I started reading about possible threats of using public networks and I was completely shocked because you never realize that surfing through public wifi could be that dangerous until something bad happens. Fortunately, I immediately contacted with the online shop and I’d managed to cancel ‘my’ order. After this whole situation I’ve made some research on how people penetrate public networks, and how to prevent situations like me from happening in the future. I found out that you can actually scan every network and see whether it is vulnerable. After some research I found these two apps that can help you with that. First one WiFi Insight Wi-Fi Analyzer is great when it comes to whole analysis of the network but it doesn’t necessarily check the security of the wifi and it costs 3$. There’s also the second app Wi-Fi Audit which is much more simple and it basically does only one thing which is checking the security of the network, and it’s free. If somebody know how I’ve got robbed and if there is a better way to safely use the public wi-fi I will appreciate it, because till now, I’m still thinking about it and I’m constantly checking each network.

    Reply

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