North Wales Management School - Wrexham University

Public Wi-Fi: how to stay safe while connected

Posted on: March 15, 2022
Cybersecurity is just as important when you’re accessing the internet on a mobile device as it is when you’re using your computer and a secure connection at home.

Public Wi-Fi is virtually everywhere these days. Whenever you’re away from your home or office router, chances are good that you won’t have to eat into your mobile data if you don’t want to. Some of the UK’s biggest mobile networks offer free Wi-Fi hotspots – even for non-customers – and many places offer free Wi-Fi to customers and visitors.

O2 and Sky, for example, collectively offer more than 35,000 free hotspots in public places across the country, and they’re available even to those who don’t use their networks. You’re also likely to access a free Wi-Fi connection at places like restaurant chains, coffee shops, museums and airports.

How to connect to public Wi-Fi

Whether you’re using an iPhone or one of the various available Android devices, you can gain free internet access via public Wi-Fi hotspots by visiting the settings on your device and searching for your Wi-Fi options, and then selecting a hotspot that you trust.

But remember, there are a few things to be aware of when using a public Wi-Fi network.

  1. Not all of them are free. For example, if you want to use a BT hotspot but you’re not a BT customer, you’ll need to pay either on demand by the hour or day, or sign up for a subscription plan. 
  2. The connection speed is typically quite slow, so usually isn’t suitable for streaming music or videos.
  3. Most importantly, you need to remember that your connection won’t necessarily be secure when accessing these wireless networks, and this can leave you open to a number of threats. 

The risks of using public Wi-Fi

Cybersecurity is just as important when you’re accessing the internet on a mobile device as it is when you’re using your computer and a secure connection at home. And if you’re using a public Wi-Fi connection, you can actually be at greater risk of falling prey to a scam by hackers or other cybercriminals.

These risks can include:

  • Malware. Viruses, worms, Trojan horses, ransomware and adware can all be planted and installed on your device without your awareness or permission.
  • Theft. Your personal data, sensitive information, credit card details, social media passwords, and more, can all be accessed by criminals online if you don’t protect yourself against them.  
  • Man-in-the-middle attacks. Also known as middle attacks, these scenarios occur when a cybercriminal intercepts communication – i.e. data or a message – between you and the entity with which you’re trying to communicate. 
  • Evil twins. These are Wi-Fi networks that appear legitimate, but aren’t. For example, you may be at Starbucks and see ‘Starbucks2’ as an open Wi-Fi network. Some might assume the network is safe to use, but in this instance, it’s not actually Starbucks’ Wi-Fi for customers – it’s just a clever scammer who has tricked you into accessing their network so that they can eavesdrop on your online activity.

Tips to stay safe when using a public Wi-Fi hotspot

There are a number of things you can do to boost your public Wi-Fi security when using a public internet connection.

The top tip is to err on the side of caution. Pretend that anything you’re accessing or sharing online when using unsecured Wi-Fi – or other public Wi-Fi access hotspots – can and will be seen by someone else.

Disable or limit file sharing, be mindful of personal or sensitive data you’re sharing – such as bank details, login credentials, and so on – and be vigilant against any access points that seem suspicious or illegitimate. Be wary, as well, of any networks that throw up authentication issues, or require you to provide a lot of personal information, such as your phone number, the first time you use it to access the internet.

Here are a few additional precautions you can take:

  • Only visit HTTPS websites.

Your connection is secure and encrypted if you see HTTPS in the web URL you’re visiting.

However, remember that this won’t always mean the website itself is legitimate. Just because a scammer’s website is encrypted doesn’t change the fact that it’s a scammer’s website.

  • Use a Virtual Private Network (VPN) app.

By installing a VPN client on your device, you’ll gain a new IP address and encrypt the data travelling to and from your device. This means that people using the same network – or the operator of the network itself – won’t easily be able to see your activity or details.

There are paid VPN options from anti-virus and cybersecurity businesses such as Norton and Kaspersky. These work for both the Apple iOS operating system and Android operating system for mobile devices, as well as on Mac and Windows.

You could also try using the Firefox Private Network extension, which is free for a limited amount of time each month. It allows you to turn on its ‘private network’ when you’re using public Wi-Fi and want to encrypt your activity. 

  • Routinely check your Wi-Fi settings

Your phone may have functionality whereby it automatically connects to any available open Wi-Fi service. You can disable this setting in your system preferences to ensure it doesn’t happen.

You should also make sure to delete or ‘forget’ any public network you use once you’re finished using it. This means your phone won’t remember the network, and won’t try to automatically connect to it again in future.

And if you’re ever in doubt, play it safe and stick to using your mobile data, rather than use a public network. This is particularly important when you’re online to check your bank details or other highly sensitive data.

Want to stay safe online – and help others stay safe too?

New threats emerge online every day, which is one of the reasons why businesses need people with cyber security skills to help reduce potential risks.

You can future-proof your career with the MBA Cyber Security from North Wales Management School. The flexible degree is studied 100% online, and is ideal for professionals – whether they have a computer science background or not – who want to enhance their career prospects by developing sought-after cyber security knowledge and skills.