It’s a lazy Sunday evening and there is this distinct craving for a cuppa of hazelnut cappuccino. You drive down to a coffee shop. You like the shop and choose it because it has good coffee and yes, free WiFi. You order your coffee and after connecting to the WiFi, you start browsing on your smartphone. Pretty soon you are on Facebook and then you are checking out vases on Amazon. Sounds familiar?
Do you use public WiFi? If your answer is a resounding “No” you are safe. If you do use the public WiFi you are willingly compromising your safety. The convenience public WiFi provides makes it a vulnerable connection which can host malevolent elements ready to pounce on your sensitive data. Let’s try to know more.
- What Exactly Do We Mean By Public WiFi?
We mean the WiFi freely available to all-without any direct cost in public spaces and publicly accessible spaces. It could be provided by government, community organisations and commercial businesses. Yes we are talking about the WiFi provided in civic spaces like shopping centers, cafes, public libraries, airports and stations.
Most popularly used public WiFi networks are those provided by airports, cafes and restaurants followed by the ones in hotel/motel accommodation. Public WiFi is mostly used by the young and the elderly. These two groups generally have smaller data plans. It makes them most vulnerable. Phone is the most popular device used by people to access Public WiFi.
- What Kind Of Data From Your Device Is Under Threat?
If you use a Public WiFi, you are risking all kind of present and historical data of your device. In all our phones there is plenty of personal information, financial information and social information. There is demographic and locational data. A lot can be deduced about you from this data. Not to forget your passwords to social networking sites, your photos and personal documents, your email accounts and banking websites. Once they are known by malevolent elements, it all can wreck your life.
- Who Can Use Your Data?
When you use a Public WiFi your data can be illegally used by
- WiFi Provider: The WiFi provider can easily access, use and sell user’s demographic and location data. These service providers are known to transfer personal information of users unencrypted. Anyone can intercept the data when it is travelling from the user to the data center of the service provider causing grave security risks.
- Authorities: When you use WiFi, your data can come under the purview of local and central authorities. They can then have information on your browsing habits and related details. You can be under scanner in the name of national security and you would then have no privacy.
- Hackers: As mentioned earlier there are innovative techniques to pry on your data and use it for their benefit. Your personal and corporate data can be gathered to be sold onto dark web. Your bank accounts details can be hacked into and money siphoned. The hackers constantly monitor network traffic and on the lookout for users who type passwords to log into their accounts.
- Protect Yourself From Device Compromise
Total Device Compromise – it is the worst case scenario. If you use WiFi regularly, say on your laptop. The hackers can put something like a keylogger on your laptop and record everything you type stroke by stroke during your subsequent visits.
Cybercriminals can then send you legitimate looking emails, make you download harmful attachments or direct you to a malicious website. You can get affected by ransomware that locks up your files to demand payment, your laptop could run harmful processes in the background without your knowledge collecting personal information which can be then sold on dark net or can be used to create a false identity and take over your bank accounts and other social accounts. Your laptop could also see lot of ads asking you to install suggested “antivirus” programs which actually would be malware for you to download and install so that the hackers can then do their job more efficiently.
- Protect Yourself From Being Cyber Stalked
You could be cyber stalked or harassed online by a stalker who gathers enough information about you by stalking you undetected. An interested cyberstalker may slander or comment unnecessarily on everything you do online. He could collect information from different sites and source and use this collected information to embarrass you in the social or work groups you are associated with. Cyberstalkers have a different motive – it could be to intimidate, control or influence the victim. They put up false accusations about the victim, try to send viruses to their device by tracking their IP address. Cyberstalkers could influence young teens to meet them in person, bully them, encourage impressionable minds to self harm – which all can be mortally dangerous. They could harass other family members and friends of the victim. In order to deter cyberstalkers avoid using public WiFi.
- Verify the WiFi Networks
There is another threat with open WiFi. The free signals you think are from airport authority may not be from them at all. Without any kind of verification you should not assume the WiFi signals that you receive in your device is legitimate. It could be a decoy hotspot set up by criminals. As a basic rule never connect to anything named “Free WiFi”. There are no rules regarding naming networks. To get information from your device all cybercriminals need to do is to create a hotpot with a name that seems credible and create a “dummy network” by broadcasting in a coffee shop or airport terminal. What then happens is that the unsuspecting users see a Free WiFi network with good signal strength and they connect to it and proceed to surf Facebook or check into other accounts.
Once you connect to the dummy network all your online activity would be through a hacker’s network where all the information would be monitored and collected. So, if you really have to use free WiFi, somehow try to make sure that that it is legitimate and you are not directly connecting to a hacker’s decoy WiFi hotspot. You could take the help of related staff members employed by the business providing Free WiFi to identify the correct network.
- Use a VPN To Protect Yourself
Even after being aware of the potential dangers it is quite possible we need to use public WiFi at some point. You then need to ensure that your sensitive information stays safe and can be viewed only by you. VPN (Virtual Private Network) can help you do that. A good VPN can give you strong encryption, fast and reliable connections and a multitude of server choice.
- Disable Network Sharing Option To Stay Safe
According to Rana Gupta, Vice President (Identity & Data Protection) APAC, Gemalto disabling the file sharing feature on your laptop is your safest best when accessing a public WiFi. When you use a private secure network you can safely keep data in sharing mode but when on a Public WiFi network you need to disable network sharing option on smartphones and laptops. It will not give access to the information and data hackers need.
Not all snooping is technical. You need to be aware of your surroundings too when you sit down to surf on public WiFi in a public place. Someone could be looking over your shoulder as you log in to different accounts of yours and use your credit cards. It is called shoulder surfing.
Some Cyber experts say you take a big risk when you sell your old smartphone. Even if you remove all data, there are hackers who can recover it all by using special software. So your best bet to stay safe is to keep your old smartphone with you. Do not sell it.
Hope the shared information is useful and will help keep you and your devices safe. That is all from my desk for now. Until next time, Adios.