The Dangers of Public WiFi

August 30, 2019

At The Fiduciary Group, we proactively take a number of precautions every day, using a wide range of technology to minimize the risk of compromising client information.

It’s important for our clients to exercise caution as well, particularly when using public WiFi. WiFi hotspots are popular, convenient amenities — often available free of charges at cafes, hotels, airports and other public places — but they can put you and your sensitive data at risk.

Public WiFi and Data Security
As the Harvard Business Report recently reported:

“The more you take your chances with a free network connection, the greater the likelihood that you will suffer some type of security breach.”

Using public WiFi can increase the chance of a cybersecurity infraction, which is why it’s important to exercise caution when using any public WiFi network.

One of the biggest security dangers when using public WiFi is “snooping,” which occurs when a cybercriminal gets between the person’s computer and the network. They are then able to passively access the data flowing from the computer to the network and can alter that communication flow to benefit themselves. The information they obtain can be used directly, like accessing your account from credentials obtained, or they can obtain additional data. This could be done by sending phishing attempts on accounts they know you have.

Another potential security threat is malware, which is any software that’s intentionally designed to cause damage to a computer, server or computer network. Malware typically inflicts damage after it has been introduced to the target computer, often without the knowledge of the computer’s user.

It’s easier for criminals to expose you to malware when you’re working on an unencrypted WiFi connection. Although the chances are slim, public WiFi makes it easier for someone to access your data without you even knowing it, which means they can potentially access your keystrokes, login credentials and credit card information.

How to Protect Yourself
The danger is real, but here are a few strategic ways you can protect yourself and your confidential information when using a public WiFi network:

Avoid accessing sensitive information on public WiFi. When using public WiFi, never access banking information, investment accounts or online shopping. Remember that hackers can potentially access your passwords, which can compromise your security. If a connection is not secure, there is always a chance that someone is watching your online activity or tracking what you are accessing on the network.

Look for “HTTPS” in the URL when surfing the Web. If the website you are accessing doesn’t include an HTTPS prefix, you are especially vulnerable to unauthorized access to your data while on an unencrypted network. The “S” indicates that the site has heightened security measures in place including, but not limited to, encryption. If you use a web browser like Google Chrome, it will display whether or not a particular URL is secure.

Use a VPN connection. If you have the option, utilize a virtual private network or VPN connection to further safeguard the data being accessed or transmitted through the network. Many companies will configure a VPN connection that employees can use that creates an encrypted “network-within-a-network” to protect your data.

Disable the feature that auto connects to WiFi in the area. If you turn off the automatic WiFi connectivity feature on your phone, it stops searching for hotspots. You might also consider switching to an unlimited data plan on your cell phone and use your network’s data, rather than public WiFi.

Generally speaking, laptop computers tend to pose a higher risk of a security breach when connecting to public WiFi and can be easier targets for cybercriminals. IOS and Android devices tend to be more secure, but only when they include the latest security updates. It’s important to make sure you install current updates on your smart phone.

Keep in mind that there have been instances where cybercriminals give their WiFi network a name that you might expect at a certain location, to increase trust and reduce suspicion. For example, they might set up a WiFi connection called “Hampton In” instead of “Hampton Inn” or “Starbucks 5G” instead of “Starbucks Wifi.” This is similar to email spoofing, when criminals impersonate a legitimate company or institution. When you inadvertently connect to the hacker’s network to surf the internet or conduct your online banking, your activity is, in fact, being monitored by a cybercriminal.

So, how can you tell if a WiFi network is secure/safe? Unfortunately, that’s difficult to determine without having access to the router. Manufacturers turn off encryption by default, so it can be difficult to confirm whether it’s been turned back on. In addition, it’s impossible for the average user to tell if the WiFi network only lets the connection run from computer to internet or if it allows computer to computer access.

Ultimately, it’s best to err on the side of caution, which means never reveal any private data or login information on public WiFi. After all, when it comes to your financial data, it’s always better to be safe than sorry. 

Interested in working with The Fiduciary Group’s wealth management services? Please reach out to us to get started.