Public Wi-Fi is a convenient way to stay connected on the go. It’s easy to find and often free, allowing you to work from coffee shops, airports, or other public places without needing to use your own data plan. But when it comes to security, public Wi-Fi can be a risky proposition. Anyone with the right tools can monitor your activity, putting your personal information at risk. So should you ever use public Wi-Fi? Is your data secure? Let’s take a closer look.  

How Public Wi-Fi Works

Public Wi-Fi works similarly to the router in your home or office; it connects multiple devices within range of its signal and allows them to access the internet. The main difference is that these routers are often not as secure as those found in private networks because they do not require authentication (password protection) for users to connect. This lack of authentication makes it easier for someone who knows what they’re doing (like a cyber criminal) to monitor your activity and potentially steal sensitive information like login credentials and credit card numbers. Some services actually ask you for personal details in exchange for access to the Wi-Fi, like your email address, and to give it permissions that it doesn't really need to work.

What You Can Do To Stay Safe On Public Wi-Fi

If you absolutely must - the most important thing you can do is avoid using any websites that require you enter personal information such as bank accounts, social media accounts, and log out of wearable device apps that could share your live location. If you must access these sites on public Wi-Fi, use a Virtual Private Network (VPN), however this is no guarantee that your data is encrypted, especially if you use a free version or one that isn’t from a reputable security company.  

Make sure the hotspot you are connecting to is the official one for the location you are in. Some cyber criminals use a technique where they set up a similar network name to a café or library (for instance) and wait for people to connect it, thinking it’s the correct one, and they then have almost unfettered access to your device. If in doubt, always ask the staff for the exact network SSID, and ensure you never set your device to automatically connect.

You should also make sure that your anti-virus software is up-to-date, so that any malicious software will be detected before it can cause any damage.

Work Devices

As more and more companies have continued to allow WFH (Work from home) privileges to employees, working from a nearby café for lunch is an attractive prospect, especially if you don’t have a dedicated space at home. It’s good to change up your environment to ensure you enjoy your workday. Check with your IT department, but it’s a good hard and fast rule to never use public Wi-Fi on a company owned device. If your device does become compromised, the cyber criminal may get access to sensitive company data, and use it to extort you, your organisation and your customers. If you do find yourself working remotely, use your mobile data plan to hotspot from, but make sure it’s not visible to other devices or an open network – protect it with a password and ensure you turn off hot spotting when you are done with it to avoid overuse of your data plan.

Public Wi-Fi can be convenient, but it also presents serious security risks for you, CISOs and other IT professionals who are responsible for protecting sensitive data. While there are steps you can take to stay safe while using public Wi-Fi networks – it's best practice to avoid them unless absolutely necessary, and never access sensitive data over these networks in order keep yourself and your organisation safe from cyber threats.  

If you'd like to increase your knowledge base in cyber security awareness, or ensure your organisation's cyber maturity is growing - contact us today for a demo of our cyber security awareness training.