The internet has changed the world, bringing people closer together, revolutionizing the entertainment industry, giving businesses of all kinds a wealth of new tools, and utterly transforming our day to day lives in more ways than we can count.
From chatting with friends and colleagues to streaming movies and music, keeping up with world news and events, or finding out more about certain subjects, we all rely on the internet each and every day, and public Wi-Fi hotspots allow us to connect to the web in many different locations, from fast-food restaurants to hotels, airports, and more.
Public Wi-Fi is hugely convenient and absolutely essential to many people, but it also poses some big risks, and at a time when more and more people are falling victim to hacking and identity fraud, it’s never been so important to take online security seriously.
With that in mind, this guide will look at how public Wi-Fi works, some of the common risks you might be exposing yourself to when connecting to the internet in places like bars and hotels, and how you can keep yourself safe and secure on public networks by making use of the best VPN service.
What Exactly is Public Wi-Fi?
Most people nowadays know all about Wi-Fi, or at least understand the basics. Wi-Fi is the name of the most commonly used wireless networking technologies, allowing computers and other devices to connect to the internet and communicate with one another, giving us all the ability to chat with friends, access our favorite news and media sites, download files, and more.
You most likely have a Wi-Fi router in your own home and are probably connected to a Wi-Fi hotspot right now. And when we connect to our home Wi-Fi networks, we usually have to input a password or code that only we know, ensuring that we’re the only ones using that specific network.
However, while our closed home networks seem safe and secure, public Wi-Fi hotspots are very different. They’re often open to all, letting anyone in the local area connect and access the internet without the need to enter a password. And this is where the danger comes into play: because public Wi-Fi networks are unsecured, they’re much easier for hackers to exploit.
Where Can I Connect to Public Wi-Fi?
These days, you can find public Wi-Fi networks and hotspots all over the place. You probably pass by dozens of them on your way to work each day or when walking around a town or city. In fact, statistics show that there are more than 100,000 unsecured public Wi-Fi hotspots worldwide right now, and that number is growing all the time.
Most cities have hundreds of public Wi-Fi hotspots in locations like restaurants, bars, cafes, airports, train stations, subway stations, hotels, malls, tourist attractions, and other public places of interest. There are even plans in place for free public Wi-Fi to be made available all over Europe’s public places as part of an initiative called WIFIEU.
Why Is Public Wi-Fi So Popular?
In theory, it makes a lot of sense for places like hotels and airports to offer public Wi-Fi. In modern times, people want to be connected to the internet on a non-stop basis, able to receive messages from friends and load up Google or other apps and services whenever they want, so it’s only natural that malls, restaurants, bars, and more want to offer that service to their customers.
In many countries, the general public has come to expect public Wi-Fi as a core part of the experience when visiting public places or attractions, and it’s clearly a very convenient service, giving people quick and easy access to the internet as and when they want it. Plus, the networks are often left unsecured, as this makes it easier for everyone to log in without the need for passwords and codes.
What’s the Problem with Public Wi-Fi?
The problem with public Wi-Fi is that these connections are classed as ‘insecure’ or ‘open’, meaning that, since you don’t need to enter any kind of password or login to get access to the internet, anyone can use these networks and their connections are being secured or encrypted in any way, shape, or form. This puts the users at risk of hackers or other malicious agents who want to steal their data, monitor their online activity, or hack into their private accounts.
What Information Is at Risk When I Connect to Public Wi-Fi?
So what do you stand to lose when connecting to a public Wi-Fi network without a VPN or any form of protection? Pretty much everything! In a world where so much of our lives happen online, hackers can steal your entire identity purely by accessing your digital accounts over a public Wi-Fi network.
They could find out the password for your email account, for example, and access your private messages or work-related sensitive documents. They could get into your social media accounts and steal your photos and videos. Worst of all, they could even access your bank accounts and rob you of your entire identity.
Here are just a few methods hackers can use to steal data from other users on public Wi-Fi networks:
- Man In The Middle – A ‘Man in the middle’ hack, or MITM for short, occurs when the hacker basically acts as an eavesdropper on your online connection, putting themselves between you and the Wi-Fi hotspot to see what sites you’re visiting and what online activity you’re engaging in, even being able to control it in some cases.
- Fake Names – An ‘fake name’ hack is a very sneaky but scarily easy way for hackers to trick people into giving away their data. Let’s say you’re in a McDonalds and want to connect to the Wi-Fi. You load up the list of local networks and see one called “McDonalds_WiFi” and you connect to it. A ‘fake name’ hacker can simply make their own network, call it something like “McDonalds_WiFi” and then watch as unsuspecting users start to connect.
- Malware – Sometimes, malware can slip through the cracks of an unsecured public Wi-Fi connection, infecting your computer, damaging your system, deleting your files, or even giving hackers access to your personal data.
- Snooping – It’s surprisingly easy for hackers, even without much experience, to use unsecured networks to their advantage and be able to snoop or spy on other users, stealing their login details and personal information without the user being any the wiser.
How Can I Protect Myself on Public Wi-Fi?
With so many risks, you might be thinking that it’s just better to never connect to any public Wi-Fi hotspot ever again. That’s definitely one way to keep yourself secure, but it’s just not practical for most people, as a lot of us simply need and rely on public Wi-Fi in order to get internet access while in town or on-the-move.
So what can you do? Get a VPN. It’s the safest and best way to protect yourself whenever you want to connect to a public Wi-Fi network, giving you first-class security encryption for total peace of mind and absolute protection against hacking attempts like malware and man in the middle attacks.
How Does a VPN Work?
Basically, a VPN eliminates every single risk we mentioned earlier in regard to public Wi-Fi networks by encrypting your internet connection and giving you total security no matter where you’re connecting from. With a VPN, nobody is able to see your connection, snoop on your activity, or intercept your files.
Any would-be hackers will be unable to see anything you do via the public network, as your encrypted connection will pass through secure servers in locations all over the world, guaranteeing maximum security every time.
Will a VPN Protect Me on Public Wi-Fi?
Absolutely! A VPN is the best form of protection for anyone considering connecting to the internet via public Wi-Fi hotspots. As mentioned above, once you connect to a VPN, your internet connection becomes secure and encrypted. So even though the public hotspot is unsecured and open, your connection will still be shielded, unlike all the other non-VPN users who are still at risk of hackers and prying eyes.
What Else Can a VPN Do?
A VPN can do much more than simply protect you in public spaces. It can also help you stay anonymous online, keeping all of your browsing history, online activity, and downloads totally anonymous and free of prying eyes. Even your internet service provider won’t be able to see what you’re doing once a VPN is all set up.
A VPN can also help you get around geo-restrictions and similar blocks by letting you connect to servers in different countries around the globe. This allows you to access US Netflix while outside the US, for example, or connect to other country-specific services and sites, no matter where you happen to be at the time.
How Do I Find the Best VPN for Public Wi-Fi?
The key to finding the best VPN for public Wi-Fi is to focus on security. The best VPNs have some of the strongest security and encryption technology around, and you should be looking for servers that are encrypted with 256-bit systems.
Additional security features like double encryption and no logs policies are good to look out for too, and we also recommend considering a VPN that lets you connect on multiple devices at the same time, as this will allow you and your family members to all use public Wi-Fi on phones, tablets, and more without any risks.