Staying connected and "always on" is an increasingly convenient, if not essential, part of our daily lives. Even when out and about, being able to keep in touch with friends, catch up on work e-mails or simply take advantage of a super sale is a must-have for many people. Almost everything we have to do, we can now do more easily online thanks to mobile devices which allow us to connect anywhere, at any time.
It goes without saying that a great deal of this convenience also stems from the sheer number free Wi-Fi hotspots which we love to connect to, largely because they are really convenient and help us avoid hefty data charges. From cafés and restaurants to airports and train stations, they are rarely far from reach. However, while free Wi-Fi access may have some benefits, their accessibility also can carry some hidden costs.
If anyone can access it, it's not secure
Given the freedom of public Wi-Fi and its value in helping us get through our day-to-day lives, Norton commissioned research into people's habits when using public Wi-Fi. It's not surprising that the study found 81 per cent of people have shared sensitive information on unsecure public networks, and one in five have even used public Wi-Fi to access personal banking and financial information.
In doing so, we potentially expose this sensitive data to hackers, which carries very real consequences. Hackers have repeatedly been found selling this information for profit on the dark web, or using it themselves to drain bank accounts directly. Only recently a journalist found out the chilling reality of using public Wi-Fi networks; on a flight, a fellow passenger hacked his emails via the in-flight internet connection and then read them back to him verbatim. Luckily for the reporter, the hacker was proving a point more than anything, yet it was still an eerie wakeup call to the risks of using a Wi-Fi hotspot.
The key lesson is this: the same features that make free Wi-Fi hotspots so easily accessible to consumers make them equally accessible to "sniffers", cybercriminals who can monitor traffic over public Wi-Fi networks to snoop on browsing sessions to see the passcodes you use, websites you are consulting and banking information you enter when making a purchase.
While the majority of adults regularly connect to the internet on public Wi-Fi, the challenge is awareness and education. Few people can differentiate between a secure and an unsecure Wi-Fi network, and most do not understand the risks when using public Wi-Fi networks and don't know what actions to take to stay protected.
Dummy networks - the biggest public Wi-Fi threat
The most risky public Wi-Fi threat is where cybercriminals create a "dummy" Wi-Fi network for people to connect to - it usually looks similar to a local public network and can cause confusion on the right one to join. Or people may see free a Wi-Fi network, often labelled "Free Wi-Fi" or another general name, and join without a second thought. Once connected, the hacker is positioned between them and the access point. Instead of sending their information directly from their device to the hotspot, it goes straight to the bad guy.
The hacker may then access every piece of information sent via the network: important emails, credit card information and even the security credentials of a bank account. Once the hacker has this data, they can access accounts at their will.
How to stay protected: Consider a VPN which is secure, encrypted and effective
As public Wi-Fi becomes increasingly common, so do the risks associated with unsecured networks. The good news is, everyone can take action to better protect themselves.
Firstly, avoid connecting to a dummy network, and ensure you are on a legitimate Wi-Fi hotspot by checking with the host to confirm the network name and connection process. Secondly, don't allow your wireless connection to automatically join the nearest network, instead you should manually select the hotspot that you would like to join.
Even on legitimate public hotspots hackers can still access your information. Therefore, the best way to ensure your personal and sensitive information remains private and doesn't fall into the hands of a "sniffer", is to use software which provides a Virtual Private Network (VPN) when on a public network.
You can think of a VPN as a "secure connection" - through which all your data is sent and received between you and the internet without interception by sniffers or snoopers. Anything that comes in or out of your device as a result of your online activity is encrypted or "scrambled" to prevent hackers from hijacking your accounts, no matter what type of network you're on. This masks your identity, location, and provides an effective extra layer of security over everything you do online.
Of course there are some activities which may not require anonymity when using public Wi-Fi, such as reading the news or browsing websites. However, doing anything which requires you to enter a password or sensitive information (including your name, e-mail or physical address, phone number, etc.) can put you and your identity at risk. Simply put, using a VPN is the best way to browse the internet anonymously - without leaving any tracks for the bad guys to follow.
It's ultimately up to you to protect your mobile device, your identity, your data, and your privacy when using public Wi-Fi, by practicing responsible, safe surfing habits and using secure technology.