Public WiFi services are a very popular way for people to wirelessly connect to the Internet from just about anywhere in the world. Public WiFi, which is available in restaurants, stores, hotels, airports, buses, trains, and even on airplanes, is convenient, free, and you can do just about anything with it, from sending emails and completing school work to watching Netflix and checking Facebook.

Although public WiFi is easily accessible, its use comes with significant risks. Because anyone can connect to public WiFi, those who connect with sinister intentions can often gain access to personal information, including bank account and Social Security numbers. If you plan to use public WiFi services, it’s important that you are aware of the dangers:

  • Information shared using public WiFi services is public. All information sent over a public WiFi network can potentially be observed by others, making it possible for tech-savvy, unscrupulous people to uncover passwords and other private information.
  • Your personal information is not all that’s at risk. Using public Wi-Fi services for business puts personal and company data at risk.
  • Hackers are watching. Hackers can use a technique called “network sniffing,” observing public WiFi network use to steal your personal information. They also often ask public WiFi users to leave their phone number or email address in exchange for a PIN to access the Internet, which can be used to obtain personal information.
  • Beware of fake login pages. You can be tricked by “page spoofing,” which is when a hacker creates a fake version of a website in order to steal personal credentials. When you access that website with passwords and other information, you can open yourself up to identity theft.

So, how can you use public WiFi safely? There is no way to completely protect yourself when using public WiFi, but there are things you can do to decrease your chances of falling victim to identity theft or cyber-attack:

  • Always confirm the legitimacy of a WiFi network before connecting to it; do not rely on the name alone. If there are multiple WiFi access points for the same venue, ask a staff member which one to use.
  • When using public WiFi, only browse websites that do not require login credentials.
  • NEVER enter personal, credit card or financial information over a public WiFi network.
  • Only visit trusted websites. Website addresses beginning with HTTPS, indicating a secure connection, is a good place to start.
  • Make sure your device does not automatically join WiFi networks.
  • Never install software while using public WiFi.
  • If you are using public WiFi, make sure you have up-to-date antivirus software.
  • If possible, choose a WiFi network that requires a password.
  • If you are connecting via Windows, to turn off file sharing and mark the WiFi connection as a public network.

Alexandra Ruediger was an intern at The University of Vermont Medical Center, working with the Information Security team. She is a senior at Norwich University, where she is studying information security. She is also a member of the US Navy ROTC.

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