How Safe Is It to Use Public Wi-Fi?

No public Wi-Fi network is absolutely secure. But some are more secure than others.

free wifi
Rage against the free Wi-Fi machine—by never providing your real email address. Pixabay

Just remember: free isn’t free; everything is attached to a cost—especially when it comes to free public Wi-Fi. A perfect example of this: a friend of mine worked for a startup in Edinburgh, Scotland. On the surface, the premise of the company was to provide free Wi-Fi to local cafes and other public establishments. They just had to sign up for the service, and the company would provide them with free Wi-Fi for their customers. Sounds like a win-win situation, right? Well… there’s more. A user had to first register to use the free Wi-Fi. That meant answering a series of unassuming personal questions, such as demographics, email address, etc.

Why, you wonder?

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Well, the reason the company was providing the free Wi-Fi was to gather people’s personal information collected through these unassuming questions and then sell it to marketing companies.  

Free is not free—you are the commodity; that’s how my friend’s company made its money.

That’s harmless. Vanilla. This data usage was clearly stated in a confusing terms of agreement (which no one bothers to read). And in the end, the user gets free, non-paid-for Wi-Fi. That’s the tradeoff.  

Still, do you ever wonder about the LinkNYC free public Wi-Fi? What’s going on with your data there? Are they looking at your browser history—and then selling it?

Or have you ever bought something at the airport using their free Wi-Fi? Is that safe? Should you be providing your credit card details over that type of unsecure network? Yikes. I worry about this all of the time. So do others. Look how concerned these well-groomed newscasters are about how using free public Wi-Fi can puts our personal information at risk. 

Just to preface: an easy solution to calm these worries—simply use your smartphone as a Wi-Fi hotspot rather than, say, the airport’s free Wi-Fi, when it’s time to type in your credit card details. Duh. Problem solved. But, we can’t always be in that circumstance. Well, then what? 

I’m stating the obvious here; free public Wi-Fi is less secure than a private Wi-Fi network. Reason being, you don’t know who set up the network (maybe cyber-crooks?) or who else is connected to it (maybe more cyber-crooks!?). In the case of an airport’s free Wi-Fi network, it would be just about everyone in the airport connected to it. But somehow, you realize that free airport Wi-Fi is designed primarily to show you Cinnabon ads. That’s the tradeoff.  

No public Wi-Fi network is absolutely secure. But some are more secure than others.

Take Starbucks, for example. Despite whatever you feel about their mediocre coffee, they are a well-known entity with an established Wi-Fi network. Thus, they have no real reason to scam you via free Wi-Fi; they already have you hooked with over-priced macchiatos. Their free Wi-Fi network is simply a means to keep you buying more over-priced macchiatos. 

But cyber-crooks are crafty. Sometimes, they’ll create a network that’s similar sounding to legitimate Wi-Fi networks. So if you’re at Starbucks, a cyber-crook might set up a rogue network called “Starschmucks” to pull one over on you to join that particular network.

What happens then? 

Once connected to the rogue network, all of your online activity can be tracked, for example, social media login passwords, banking transactions and browser history. Not to mention, all of those ugly viruses out there that could be sent and you could contract. Ugh—stupid, crafty cyber-crooks. 

Another thing to look out for while out at a public locale: if you see a random free third-party Wi-Fi network pop up on your phone, something’s up. How are the people running the network paying the bills? Did they set up the network for the pure love of providing free Wi-Fi? They’re probably doing something with your data and browser history. (See previous commentary on the Edinburgh startup.) Also, note if they ask for way too much personal information—just to allow you to connect—chances are your information is being sold to someone else. 

So, rage against the free Wi-Fi machine—by never providing your real email address. 

A few other rules of thumb while on free public Wi-Fi: turn off all file sharing apps, such as AirDrop; use a VPN (virtual private network) if checking personal, sensitive data, such as banking info; and don’t even get me started about unsecured sites that pop up—a huge red flag for that particular network. Also, when finished using a public network, turn your Wi-Fi off. If you don’t, it could still be transmitting sensitive data. 

And most importantly, once again, remember that free is never free. If you don’t have to get on public Wi-Fi, then just don’t do it.

How Safe Is It to Use Public Wi-Fi?