As of January 2021, Statista reports that there were 4.66 billion active internet users worldwide. That equates to 59.5 percent of the global population being active online. Of those using the internet, a whopping 92.6 percent, or 4.32 billion people, reported accessing the internet using mobile devices.
While mobile devices such as smart phones and tablets make accessing the internet simple and fast everywhere, it can also create hazards we often fail to realize. With so many people returning to the office at least part time and the hustle and bustle of the holiday season upon us, the temptation to connect to public Wi-Fi out of sheer convenience is higher than ever, but so is the danger of being hacked by using it.
To keep you and your data safer, the cybersecurity professionals at ORAM Corporate Advisors share how Wi-Fi works, the dangers of using public Wi-Fi, and offer up some safety tips, tricks, and hints for staying connected when you’re out and about.
How Wi-Fi Works
Wi-Fi operates as a radio signal sent from a wireless router to nearby devices. The router translates the signal into data you see and use. When you interact online using Wi-Fi, the device transmits a radio signal back to the router, which connects the device to the internet through the use of a cable or wire connection.
Such Wi-Fi networks can connect multiple devices in a home or business. The beauty of Wi-Fi is that as long as you are within the network coverage of the router, it will keep your devices conveniently connected. What’s even better, if you connect to a network with your mobile devices such as a smartphone or tablet, it can “remember” the Wi-Fi network so you don’t have to log in every time. Your device will automatically do it for you.
The Dangers of Public Wi-Fi
When you are at home, you likely have a login and password in order to connect to your Wi-Fi network, making it private and keeping your devices and data secure. When you are away from your home network, many businesses offer free public Wi-Fi as a convenience for their customers; however, that convenience can quickly turn inconvenient if you get hacked.
Public Wi-Fi networks are wrought with risks that most people don’t know about or fully understand. One of the most common and serious threats is the theft of personal information ranging from login credentials, financial and/or personal information, and even pictures. It’s simple enough for a hacker to access your mobile devices through compromised public Wi-Fi networks.
Once a bad actor has achieved access to a public Wi-Fi network, they can access other computers and devices as well as the data on them or the information used to access accounts from stolen logins and passwords to credit card information. With such personal information, the bad guys can have a nice shopping spree with your card details, empty your bank account, steal your photos, or worse.
The “Man-in-the-Middle” Attacks
Additionally, when your mobile devices pick up “available networks” nearby, you can’t be sure they are actually legitimate public networks. A threat known as “man-in-the-middle” attacks occurs when a cybercriminal sets up a Wi-Fi network that looks like a legitimate public Wi-Fi connection when in fact, they are simply “impersonating” one. For example, if you’re visiting a local coffee shop called the Coffee Café that offers free Wi-Fi and you see a network called “Coffey Cafe,” you might think that’s the free network. Notice the slight misspelling in the word “Coffee?” That little error could mean a fake network is set up to get you to connect so a hacker can capture your personal information. This is an easy way for the bad guys to get your login information and passwords as they watch you log into sites. They can even capture your credit card information if you pay for anything online.
Another common threat to public Wi-Fi networks is unencrypted connections. Encrypted websites send data back and forth and it’s only readable with a secure key. Unfortunately, there are many websites that are not encrypted. You can tell which ones are encrypted because the web address will start with HTTPS rather than the standard, unencrypted HTTP.
If you use public Wi-Fi to visit an unencrypted website, anyone within the network range of your computer can capture everything you send or receive. They can read all of the data going back and forth and this includes logins, passwords, and credit card information.
Distributing Disturbing Packages
Another threat from using public Wi-Fi is malware dropped on your devices. A bad actor using the same public network can plant viruses, malware, worms, Trojan horses, ransomware, and adware on your mobile devices. Hackers can use the network to infect your computer than can hang on and cause problems even when you leave the public Wi-Fi and use other connections.
Sniffing and Eavesdropping
Public networks allow savvy cybercriminals to use the same Wi-Fi networks to eavesdrop on your activity by using a packet sniffer (also known as a packet analyzer). This allows them to see everything you send and receive over the network that isn’t encrypted. Consider personal emails, text messages, and photos. Do you really want all of that out for public consumption?
Hijacking and Impersonation
Imagine that you need to check your bank account before making a purchase so you figure a quick peek at your balance on a public Wi-Fi won’t hurt anything. You log in and, without your knowledge, an attacker has intercepted information about your device and its connection to your bank. After you take a look and log out, you go about your shopping.
The problem is that the bad guy had his computer “hijack” that connection to your bank but from the bank’s end, it still looks like you’re logged in. This means that the hacker has access to everything in your account or accounts since the connection was never closed. This means they could wipe you out before you even get to the register with your purchase.
Safeguarding Against the Threats of Public Wi-Fi
So what can you do to protect yourself when it comes to the multiple dangers of public Wi-Fi? Here are a few ways to protect yourself, your devices, and your data when you’re away from the secure network of your home.
- Always assume Wi-Fi is not safe. Know that whenever you are working online, you’re vulnerable. Acknowledging this will allow you to tread more safely.
- Avoid using public Wi-Fi. Don’t get complacent about using public Wi-Fi and always think twice about using public Wi-Fi, even if you’re just surfing the net. Use your mobile hotspot or use your cellular data instead.
- Never make financial transactions using public Wi-Fi network. Stick to making purchases from secure networks or while using your hotspot.
- Live life in a zero-trust way when it comes to your online activity. Always assume a zero-trust state when you are doing anything online. After all, if you were hacked, what would you do?
- Use a virtual private network (VPN). This will encrypt the data you send and receive so it can’t be hacked.
- Use multi-factor authentication (MFA). This is especially true for websites or apps that require the use of sensitive information. This secondary authentication in tandem with your password offers better security so if a bad guy does get your login information, they still can’t get in without the multifactor authentication code.
- If you must connect to public Wi-Fi, do not share anything private or log into any sensitive websites. Also, never ever shop or share credit card information when on a public Wi-Fi network.
If you’d like more information about protecting your data and avoiding the dangers of public Wi-Fi networks, contact ORAM Corporate Advisors at (617) 933-5060.