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Is public wifi safe?

Whether you’re working at a coffee shop, spending the night in a hotel or waiting to go on vacation at the airport—public wifi is a convenient way to stay connected online. But is public wifi safe?

Public wifi can be risky when it comes to the information you share over the internet. Easy public wifi access gives way for hackers to take advantage of lax security features. Many people store personal information on their devices and connecting to public wifi could potentially put it in the hands of the wrong person. Understand the risks of connecting to public wifi and learn how you can safeguard your data.

Risks and dangers of public wifi

Here are some of the most common risks users face when connecting to public wifi:

Theft of personal or sensitive information over wifi

If a hacker accesses your computer or personal device through a compromised public wifi connection, they could easily steal any information you have stored, including:

  • Pictures

  • Personal information

  • Login credentials

  • Financial data

Once a hacker has access to your personal information, they can use it to access your bank account or even steal your identity. Moreover, they can infect your device with spyware and intercept information you’re sending over the internet.

Wifi cyber attacks

If you’re working or browsing the internet in a public setting, a hacker can plant malware on your device through a compromised internet connection. Common types of malware include:

  • Viruses: This is a specific type of malware that inserts its code into other programs and self-replicates to take over a device and the user’s information.

  • Worms: This type of malware can replicate without human interaction and spread from one device to another, potentially infecting every device on a shared network.

  • Trojan horses: Typically implemented through phishing scams, a trojan horse is a type of malicious software designed to damage or steal information on a device.

  • Ransomware: This type of malware allows the hacker to gain control of your device and hold your valuable information hostage until a ransom is paid.

  • Adware: This type of malware is used to overwhelm your device with pop-up ads in an attempt to get you to download malicious software. 

Unencrypted wifi connections

When you connect to a secure connection, the data that gets sent back and forth is encrypted using a secure key. This means that anyone trying to access your information would need the key to read it. Unfortunately, many public wifi security features don’t offer any type of encryption. Which means anyone within range can intercept information you send or receive over the connection. If the wrong person were to gain access, it could put you at risk for a cyber-attack. 

Risks of hotel wifi

Is hotel wifi safe? While hotel wifi is a nice feature to have during your travels, it can lack the adequate public wifi security measures needed to keep your information safe.

Hotel guest wifi is typically available to the public, meaning anyone nearby can connect. Unfortunately, this also means hackers can easily access the network and monitor any traffic going through the internet.

The security measures each hotel implements on their wifi will differ. As a result, you should take certain precautions when connecting. Avoid logging into any personal accounts with sensitive information and limit your browsing to finding local restaurants or entertainment.

  • Viruses: This is a specific type of malware that inserts its code into other programs and self-replicates to take over a device and the user’s information.

  • Worms: This type of malware can replicate without human interaction and spread from one device to another, potentially infecting every device on a shared network.

  • Trojan horses: Typically implemented through phishing scams, a trojan horse is a type of malicious software designed to damage or steal information on a device.

  • Ransomware: This type of malware allows the hacker to gain control of your device and hold your valuable information hostage until a ransom is paid.

  • Adware: This type of malware is used to overwhelm your device with pop-up ads in an attempt to get you to download malicious software. 

Airport wifi hazards

Is airport wifi safe? Whether you’re waiting to catch a red-eye or stuck at a long layover, trying to connect to airport wifi can put you at risk.

Scammers are constantly looking for opportune moments to take advantage of tired or distracted travelers who aren’t paying close attention to which network they connect to. Common methods hackers use to steal your information through airport wifi are:

  • Evil twin: Evil twin networks are fake networks created by hackers. These networks often have names resembling names to authentic connections. Watch for random capitalization, numbers or special characters. For example, airportwifi vs airportwifi3. Check with an official airport employee to see what networks are legitimate and available to you before connecting.

  • Honeypot: These networks are often listed with names such as, Free_Wifi or InternetFree. These networks will often push your internet activity directly into a hacker’s hands. If you’re not asked to agree to terms and conditions before logging on to a network, this could be a sign that you’re not using a legitimate wifi connection.

  • Pop-ups: Be cautious of any pop-ups asking you to update software while on airport wifi as they’re likely phishing scams trying to get you to download malware. Decline any pop-ups while on public wifi to help protect your devices from malicious hackers. 

Do VPNs protect you on public wifi?

A VPN works by granting you access to a private and anonymous network that helps keep your online activity and data confidential. VPNs use encryption to make your data unreadable as it travels across a public network, making it difficult for hackers to decipher. Using a VPN when connecting to public wifi can help safeguard your information and is an important security measure to take, especially if you’re using the internet to share sensitive data.

How to safely use public wifi

Aside from using a VPN, other steps you can take to protect your information while using a public wifi connection include:

  • Using strong passwords: Weak passwords put you at risk, especially when accessing public wifi. Ensure all your passwords are strong and unique, so even if a hacker manages to get one, they can’t use it to access all your personal accounts.

  • Locking your screen: If you step away, lock your computer screen to avoid unwanted users from quickly gathering information. Likewise, a lock screen on your smartphone can help protect your information if your phone is ever stolen.

  • Turning off automatic connectivity: If your phone automatically connects to open wifi networks within range, turn this feature off. This can help avoid connecting to an unsecure network without a VPN.

  • Enabling two-factor authentication: Having two-factor authentication on all your devices requires users to pass two verifications before logging in. If a hacker does get ahold of your password, they will still need to pass a second verification to access your information.

  • Avoiding phishing scams: Don’t click on emails from unknown senders, pop-up ads or anything requesting you download a piece of software you’re unaware of. Even with a VPN on your device, a phishing text or email can still make its way through.

Public Wifi security best practices

Here are some best practices to follow for safely using public wifi:

  • Always assume a public wifi connection isn’t secure. If you need to use it, avoid accessing any personal or financial information.

  • Check to see if a website is encrypted before sending any personal information. How can you recognize an unsecure wireless network? An encrypted website will have a URL starting with https.

  • Your browser may alert you when you’re about to visit a suspicious site. Don’t ignore these waring and stay off unfamiliar websites.

  • Install browser add-ons that will force the browser to use encryption on websites that usually don’t. However, please note these add-ons won’t protect you on every site.

Use hotspots

Some internet service providers like Cox offer thousands, even millions, of hotspots around the country. Cox even allows you to protect up to five devices on your internet plan with free Cox Security Suite Plus powered by McAfee®, so you can connect with added peace of mind. Next time you’re in a public setting and want to connect to wifi, check to see if your service provider has any hotspots available.

Learn how Cox can enhance your connected experience

Nationwide Wifi Hotspots

Access 3 million wifi hotspots with your Cox internet credentials.

Get Panoramic Wifi

View the super-fast wifi router/modem combo from Cox.

What is Panoramic Wifi?

Learn about the Cox Panoramic Wifi gateway, pods and app.