Is public Wi-Fi safe? No, but it is necessary

Lisa Hyman
LH
Lisa Hyman
Nov 14, 2019

It can seem like a job requirement to check your email on-the-go but have you ever wondered what is at risk when you login via local Wi-Fi? Find out how to use public Wi-Fi without (too much) worry. 

Let’s get right to it: Is using public Wi-Fi risky? 

Short answer: Yes. Using public or “open” Wi-Fi will always carry some risk. Using your cellular data is the safest choice because the data you send is encrypted. 

If you must use public Wi-Fi (such as if your device has a limited data plan, or no data plan at all), use a Wi-Fi hotspot that requires a password. Many restaurants and retail spaces nowadays have their password visibly posted, or will supply you with the password if you ask. 

Public Wi-Fi security depends on:

  • Who else is on it
  • Who provides it

Difference between open Wi-Fi and public Wi-Fi

These two terms can overlap, but essentially public Wi-Fi may have some security settings in place, but Open Wi-Fi is accessible by anyone.

Open Wi-Fi

Open Wi-Fi is any Wi-Fi network that can be accessed without a key or password. These are the least secure types of Wi-Fi hotspots to use.

Public Wi-Fi

Public Wi-Fi refers to the hotspots at places like coffee stores, hotels and restaurants. Public Wi-Fi may have a password that customers need in order to sign in and use the hotspot. If no password is needed to login, then it qualifies as open Wi-Fi.

A sign-in page doesn’t mean security 

Lots of public Wi-Fi spots will have sign-in pages. Don’t get the sign-in confused with password-level security. The sign-in is the terms and conditions page, but it doesn’t mean the network is secured. It’s basically legal fine print to tell you how the Wi-Fi hotspot is using your data and — to be honest — does anyone read that anyway or do you just hit accept?

Why is open Wi-Fi dangerous?

Using public Wi-Fi is one of the easiest ways for hackers to have access to lots of data from many different people in the shortest amount of time. There’s even stats on the airports most likely to be hacked. And the hackers can see everything you do online via open Wi-Fi, from what websites you visit, any data you send or links you click. 

Who is most likely to be hacked?

Think you are fairly tech-savvy? That actually puts you in the “most likely to get hacked” category. Security expert Craig Peterson outlines who is most likely to get hacked in his podcast. The results may surprise you — Gen Xers, who were coming-of-age as the internet-age was exploding, rank as the most likely victims, right behind Baby Boomers. Millennials rate as least likely to get hacked due to their generational skepticism. 

How common is it to be hacked 

One common myth is that the hacker will be nearby.  However, the culprit doesn’t need to be in the vicinity to steal your info. So, don’t get lulled into a false sense of security if you know everyone in your local coffee shop, because the threat could be hundreds of miles away

Plus, even though most people generally do not believe public Wi-Fi to be very safe, that doesn’t deter us from using it.


How to use public Wi-Fi safely

If using public Wi-Fi is unavoidable, there are some ways you can minimize risk. Students or people who travel for work and use Wi-Fi often should get a Virtual Private Network, or VPN, on your phone. 

  • Get a VPN on your mobile phone

Best course of action, if you plan to use public Wi-Fi, is get a VPN on your cellphone. It’s easy — just download a VPN app. Free and subscription-based VPN apps are available. Go to the iPhone App Store or Google Play for Android and search “VPN.” Not sure what a VPN is? Read our full VPN guide here

  • Be cautious on mobile apps 

Apps are typically unsecured, so avoid putting in credit card or personal info on apps when using public or open Wi-Fi. Games are generally safe to play, as long as you are not making in-app purchases.

  • Identify secure websites

There are a few ways other than entering a Wi-Fi password to make sure the web pages you are surfing are secure. Only go to pages that begin with “https, ” rather than http. The S stands for secure! Click into the URL bar to check the url.

Benefits of open Wi-Fi 

Of course, open Wi-Fi isn’t all bad. It allows for more internet-access equality. The FCC reports that 19 million Americans still lack access to the internet. Increasing internet access can raise educational opportunities and bring about an equal playing field for all income levels, which in turn will uplift the U.S. economy as a whole, according to this piece in Forbes. Accordingly, OpenWireless.org is a non-profit working to increase internet access by having more open and public Wi-Fi hotspots.


So, while you may find yourself in a situation where using public Wi-Fi is inevitable, don’t fret. Just remember to use a password, don’t send personal info and invest in a VPN. For more internet safety tips, look to our Resource Center or connect with us on Facebook and Twitter.