Over the past year, we’ve seen remote work skyrocket in popularity, with working professionals taking their office jobs home (or anywhere else they can). Even before the pandemic though, the recent explosion of free, public Wi-Fi has made the option of working outside of the office more appealing, since as long as you have an internet-capable device, you are never far from being able access your network and your work. However, this freedom comes with a price, as while public Wi-Fi is convenient, it also makes people easy targets for hackers.

With Convenience Comes Potential Dangers

The unfortunate fact is that the same features that make free, public Wi-Fi so desirable are exactly what make them appealing to hackers. Since it requires no authentication to establish a connection, it is easy for hackers to positions themselves so that they can gain access to people’s private information. Typically, this involves what’s called a “man-in-the-middle attack,” where when someone tries to make a connection to a Wi-Fi hotspot, they instead end up sending their information directly to hacker, who then relays back to the hotspot itself.

This means that while one might think that they are accessing the internet normally, in reality a hacker can now freely access any information that they send out to the internet, whether its important emails, credit card information, or even vital business credentials. On top of eavesdropping, hackers can also use public Wi-Fi spots to freely distribute malware to people who allow file-sharing across a network.

Tips For Staying Safe

The most obvious solution for avoiding these issues is to just avoid connecting to public Wi-Fi entirely, but sometimes this isn’t an option. In situations like this, here are a few options to help stay safe.

  • Avoid Using Your Personally Identifiable Information (PII): If you must use a public Wi-Fi network, avoid touching any PII, including your banking information, social security numbers, or home address.
  • Use Strong Passwords: This is a general cyber safety rule. Long strings of random characters that include both numbers and letters are best. Also, avoid using the same password across multiple accounts.
  • Beware of Phishing. Emails or pop-ups from your bank, credit card company, or another website you do business with could actually be a hacker looking to access your account. You’re better off just typing the URL of the financial institution directly into your browser.
  • Enable Two-Factor Authentication (2FA). Requiring a second element for logging on to a website goes a long way toward keeping hackers out. Even if your password is compromised, having 2FA in place can keep your accounts safe.
  • Turn Off File Sharing: File sharing can be useful, but you don’t need to have it on most of the time. You can usually switch off file sharing in either your system preferences or the control panel.
  • Consider Using a Virtual Private Network (VPN): A VPN allows you to create a secure connection to another network over the Internet, which encrypts all the data traveling back and forth from your device. They can be a bit expensive, but they’re great protection against man-in-the-middle attacks.
  • Use SSL Connections: When browsing the internet, you can enable the “Always Use HTTPS” option on websites that you visit frequently, which adds an additional layer of security to your web browsing.
  • Encrypt Your Devices. Though a VPN can protect your data in transit, it is important to protect what’s on your device as well. That way is someone gains access to your device, your data will be scrambled and inaccessible. For smartphones, this is as simple as just setting a passcode, though it’s a bit more complicated for laptops and tablets.

Protecting Yourself

In the end, like a lot of security-related decisions, deciding whether or not to use public Wi-Fi will come down to judging the trade-off between security and convenience. Sometimes your only option is an unsecured public Wi-Fi hotspot and your work simply cannot wait. If you aren’t logging onto your bank or keeping some vital information on your laptop, there’s much less of a risk from using public Wi-Fi. But even if the odds of getting hacked are unlikely, its still best to practice smart online security measures.