Free Wi-Fi: Why it Can Be Dangerous

People use free WiFi on their laptops at a cafe in Beijing

Free Wi-Fi at a cafe in Beijing | Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images

Free Wi-Fi is one of the most useful conveniences of the modern world. Wherever you are, it’s becoming easier and easier to find a hotspot to connect your phone or laptop to so that you can search for information, download a file, make a video call, finish a project, or check in on what’s going on at work. But, free Wi-Fi isn’t quite as innocuous as it sounds. In fact, connecting to a free Wi-Fi network can sometimes be a dangerous choice.

Your data and personal information can be vulnerable

There are easy ways to find free Wi-Fi networks — once you start looking, you’ll likely find that there are plenty within close proximity to where you live, work, commute, and shop. Many businesses, like Starbucks and Apple, offer free Wi-Fi, and many transit organizations offer free networks. Free hotspots are popping up in parks, airports, train stations, libraries, and museums, or, you can use a hotspot offered by your cable or internet provider. But, if you’re choosing to connect to free Wi-Fi, there are some definite risks that can leave your personal data and browsing activity vulnerable.

When you connect to a free Wi-Fi network, whether at your local Starbucks or in a city park, there’s a chance that someone else may be able to intercept the data you’re sending to apps and websites. Even on networks with Passpoint, a system designed to protect your data with encryption, you’ll need to make sure that your browser traffic, your mail, and your social media data are protected via SSL encryption. You should also take other basic precautions to make sure that your security isn’t compromised. Even if you’re pretty confident in your security know-how, you may still be vulnerable.

Major public networks are an obvious target for hackers who go after people’s personal data (and find it very easy to do so on free Wi-Fi networks). You shouldn’t take more risk than necessary when using a free Wi-Fi network. If you can wait to complete tasks that involving submitting sensitive information — like banking data, your credit card information, or your Social Security number — then you should definitely wait until you’re on a secure network.

Hackers can create fake Wi-Fi networks

People use their laptops at a Starbucks that offers free Wi-Fi

People connect their laptops to Starbucks’ free Wi-Fi | Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

As Jen A. Miller reports for PCWorld, it’s easy for hackers to create fake hotspots — and just as easy for consumers to fall for it and end up getting hacked. Most of us don’t fully question whether a Wi-Fi network is safe, and plenty of us don’t really have time to check whether it might be malicious or fake. But, after a hacker gets you to log on to a fake network, the danger is real.

Once you’ve joined a fake hotspot, hackers can access your files or plant malware on your device, and they can access your personal data or spy on the apps and services you’re using. That’s bad enough if it’s just your personal data on your device, but even worse if you’re on a work device and have sensitive information from your employer, too. Buying a hotspot or using your phone as a hotspot, or asking the staff at a location whether a hotspot is really theirs, are some options you should consider.

Another danger, aside from fake networks, is that the legitimate Wi-Fi network you’re connecting to isn’t as secure as it should be. Many public and free Wi-Fi networks use SSL encryption, but unencrypted networks are still out there as well. Justin Pot reports for MakeUseOf that unencrypted networks are particularly dangerous. Without encryption, anyone can see the sites that you visit, the text that you send out, and the login information that you submit. And, on an unencrypted network, fellow users who are infected with malware can put you at risk. If you don’t need to type in a password to connect to a Wi-Fi network, you should run the other way — or use a plugin like HTTPS Everywhere to encrypt your communications.

You have to hand over your data to get free Wi-Fi

Man typing in credit card information into a website

You should never have to hand out personal data to access Wi-Fi | iStock.com

It’s not just fake networks or unencrypted ones that you have to worry about. Connecting to a legitimate, free Wi-Fi network means handing over some personal data, but is free Wi-Fi worth sharing your data? That’s a tough question to answer definitively. Free public hotspots, like those available in New York City, are offered by large companies, like Google. But a public Wi-Fi network that’s ostensibly free ultimately comes at a cost. Free Wi-Fi is offered on the condition that the company providing it can collect, store, and analyze users’ data, look up their location, and access information about their activity. So you’re giving up a lot of data for very little in return.

What’s even worse is that few users of public Wi-Fi networks really know what they’re getting themselves into. In New York City, LinkNYC doesn’t make it clear that users’ personal data will be gathered to target ads to them. It also doesn’t disclose how extensively it may be tracking your location. Giving up your personal data may be standard practice for free internet-based products and services, but even if you’re okay with that — and most users really aren’t — that shouldn’t excuse service providers from getting users’ informed consent. Providers should be transparent about how they’re using consumers’ data and what the privacy and security implications are.

Most people don’t read or understand privacy policies or terms of use. So, in most cases, they don’t really understand how much they’re giving away for practically nothing in return. Whenever you can, make sure that you think about what you’re giving up to connect to free Wi-Fi. You may find that that Netflix episode can wait.

If you’re just looking for a free Wi-Fi network to join at all costs, we understand, and it probably isn’t the time to challenge the status quo. To minimize the damage, Joanna Stern reports for The Wall Street Journal that you should proceed with caution when connecting to free Wi-Fi. Ensure that any sites where you input your personal information are using SSL encryption (check for an HTTPS and a padlock icon in the address bar).

If you use public Wi-Fi regularly, it’s also a good idea to use a virtual private network (VPN) and configure it to automatically connect when you join a Wi-Fi network. Prevent your smartphone from remembering or automatically joining public networks. And, secure your accounts by changing repetitive and insecure passwords, setting up a password manager, and enabling two-factor authentication on important accounts.

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