Dangers of Joining Unknown Wi-Fi Networks

Our world is becoming more and more connected. Widespread (and growing) access to Wi-Fi is convenient and essential for our modern lifestyles, but it’s not as harmless as it may seem. This article explores the top dangers of public Wi-Fi for businesses, cyber threats to be aware of, and how to minimize your exposure to the risks of an open Wi-Fi network.

The Work From Anywhere Movement is Growing

2020 was a record-breaking year for cyberattacks. With stay-at-home mandates, quarantines, and offices closing indefinitely across the country, American professionals retreated to their home offices. As society opened back up, the remote-work format stayed for many. Some experts predict that more than 36 million Americans will have fully remote or flexible jobs by 2025, an 87% post-pandemic increase. One can infer that having the option to work outside the office has driven many workers to choose public settings such as coffee shops, restaurants, train stations, airports, and other public spaces to do their work, making businesses and employees more vulnerable to cyberattacks.

Cyber Attacks Are On the Rise

You might think, “I use public Wi-Fi all the time, and I’ve never had a problem!” Sure, not that you know of, at least. The worrisome truth is—in tandem with the growing remote-worker population—cyberattacks are also on the rise, and anyone using public Wi-Fi is at risk. In a Global Risk Report published in 2020, cyberattacks were named the fifth top-rated risk for companies across public and private sectors, and those attacks are expected to climb in ranking soon. The FBI reported 791,790 complaints of suspected internet crime in 2020—which is 300,000 more than reported in 2019—and estimated the financial toll at more than $4.2 billion. Protecting yourself from the risks of public Wi-Fi has never been more imperative. This is essential for businesses and individuals in virtually every industry, although some are much more vulnerable than others.

What Are the Top Dangers of Public Wi-Fi for Businesses?

Most people working while connected to public Wi-Fi networks are blissfully unaware of the risk of accidentally sharing secret, important, or sensitive information, which could cause a significant problem in the hands of a skilled hacker. You’ve likely taken advantage of the modern perk of public Wi-Fi. However, this is not without serious risk, which is why you should be wary of the top seven dangers of public Wi-Fi for businesses:

Malware, Viruses, and Worms

One of the major threats you can face on public Wi-Fi is the forced installation of malware—also known as malicious software—on user devices. This is the umbrella term for all code and apps written to harm devices or intercept information. Hackers can infect the public Wi-Fi network, which then infiltrates the devices that connect to it. Malware comes in multiple forms and can wreak havoc and spy on the devices it infects. Viruses are malware that spread through a host file and are triggered and replicated by a human. In contrast, worms can reproduce independently without human intervention, making them capable of even more significant damage.

Rogue Networks

A rogue network or access point is essentially a “back door” installed on a network’s wired infrastructure without the administrator’s knowledge or consent. This type of security breach, which some refer to as a “man-in-the-middle attack,” disguises itself as a legitimate Wi-Fi connection to trick users into connecting to it.

Unencrypted Connections

An encryption-free connection allows hackers to monitor all file sharing and traffic sent between the user and server on a public Wi-Fi network. A well-positioned attacker can easily track the network users connected to the router of an unsecured network and inject malicious JavaScript into their devices.

Network Snooping

Another standard method of attack is network snooping, which happens when a hacker uses malicious software on a public Wi-Fi network to remotely monitor the activity on a third-party’s laptop. This is an avenue for hackers to surveil any information exchange—credit card information, passwords, or other sensitive details.

Log-in Credential Vulnerability

Weak and predictable passwords cause log-in credential vulnerability. This type of security vulnerability can be prevented by ensuring that all your passwords for websites, apps, and Wi-Fi networks are strong and unique.

System Update Alerts

Hackers are constantly innovating ways to hijack smartphone devices. One sneaky way to steal information targeting Android devices is through fake system update alerts with data-exfiltration capabilities.

Session Hijacking

Public wi-fi networks open the door to session hijacking, which consists of exploiting a legitimate web browsing session. This is yet another way cybercriminals can gain unauthorized access to data in a network user’s device, leaving any information about your business extremely vulnerable.

How to Stay Safe While Using Public Wi-Fi

Now that you know the possible public Wi-Fi security risks, you might wonder how to use a public network safely. While there is always some degree of risk, there are ways to protect yourself from the dangers of public Wi-Fi. Follow along to learn how to stay safe using a public wireless connection.

Avoid Accessing Sensitive Information.

When using a public Wi-Fi network, it’s best to avoid accessing sensitive information. You can probably do it if you need to browse for directions online or do something less sensitive. But if you’re trying to pay your bills or buy something, it may be best to wait.

Use a VPN

A great way to minimize public Wi-Fi security risks is to use a virtual private network (VPN). By using a VPN on public Wi-Fi, you’re accessing a private network, or VPN tunnel, through which you send and receive information, adding an extra layer of security to your connection. While some VPNs are free, you’ll likely have to pay for the best security features. Be sure to buy your VPN from a trusted provider to ensure your data is safe. 

Stick to “HTTPS” Websites

Only browse websites that include an SSL certificate while on public Wi-Fi. A website has an SSL certificate when the URL begins with “HTTPS.” Website addresses that start with “HTTPS” are encrypted, adding an extra layer of security and making your browsing more secure. If you connect to unsecured Wi-Fi networks and use “HTTP” instead of “HTTPS” addresses, your traffic could be visible to anyone else on the network.

Use Browser Extensions

Consider installing an extension like HTTPS Everywhere*, which will force all websites you visit to connect using “HTTPS.” This is a Firefox, Chrome, and Opera extension produced by a collaboration between the Electronic Frontier Foundation and The Tor Project. Using this extension can reduce the risk of ending up on an unsafe website.

Adjust Your Connection Settings

Configure the wireless settings on your devices to not automatically connect to available public hotspots. You can do this by turning off the “Connect Automatically” feature on your devices so they don’t auto-connect and search for known Wi-Fi networks.  

Doing this can prevent your computer or device from broadcasting that it’s trying to connect to your “home Wi-Fi” network and allow an attacker to create a bogus network with the same name.

Turn Off File Sharing

Make sure you turn off file sharing before accessing public Wi-Fi. If you keep file sharing on, your folders may be accessible to anyone connected to the same public network, allowing a hacker to get their hands on your private information without your permission.

Use Two-Factor Authentication (2FA)

Cyber snoops could gain access to your passwords when you’re using public Wi-Fi. One way to enhance your protection is by enabling two-factor authentication (2FA) on any services that offer it. When enabled, this ensures that even if someone gains access to your password while you’re using public Wi-Fi, they won’t be able to access your accounts. Usually, you’ll receive a second login step — a call or a code on your smartphone, for instance — that you’ll use to log in to your account.

Keep Your Operating System Up to Date

It’s crucial always to update your operating system (OS). OS updates often include critical security patches that can further protect your device from Wi-Fi threats. By always installing the latest updates, you can browse the web knowing the most up-to-date security features protect you.

Remember to Log Out

When you’re done browsing, be sure to log out of any services you were using. Also, check your settings to make sure your device will “forget the network” and not automatically reconnect to that network again if you’re within range without your permission. This can help minimize the time your device is connected to a public network.

Use Antivirus Software

Using antivirus software is another excellent way to stay safe while using public Wi-Fi. With antivirus software installed, you can use public Wi-Fi networks knowing you are protected against cybersecurity threats such as computer viruses and spyware.