Tech Made Simple

Hot Topics: How to Fix Bluetooth Pairing Problems | Complete Guide to Facebook Privacy | How to Block Spam Calls | REVIEW: RadMission 1 eBike

author photo

How to Protect Your Privacy on Public WiFi Networks

by on July 23, 2021
in Computers and Software, Computer Safety & Support, Tips & How-Tos, Privacy :: 16 comments

Techlicious editors independently review products. To help support our mission, we may earn affiliate commissions from links contained on this page.

So you're at your favorite coffee shop and have hopped onto the free WiFi with your tablet to check your social networks, read the latest news, and maybe take a quick peek at your bank balance while you're enjoying your latte. We're so used to having Internet access whenever and wherever we need it that we don't often stop to consider whether logging into a public network is safe.

Over the last decade, Techlicious has been tracking the dangers of using public WiFi, and we have found three major ways these free public hotspots could get you into trouble. And to keep you safe, we recommend five simple things you can do to protect your privacy when you use public WiFi. 

The 3 big risks of free public WiFi

Using public WiFi is like having a conversation in a public place: Others can overhear you unless you take precautions.

1. Your personal information is sent in clear text

If you don't take precautions, information your devices send over a public WiFi network goes out in clear text — and anyone else on the network could easily take a look at what you're doing with just a few simple software tools.

Someone spying could easily pick up your passwords or other private information. If you use the same password on multiple sites, that could be a big problem. This is the biggest concern with public hotspots.

2. You connect to a honeypot WiFi hotspot set up by thieves

The next potential problem is what is called a honeypot. Thieves might set up their own WiFi hotspot with an unassuming name like "Public WiFi" to tempt you to connect so they can grab up any data you send. These are easy to set up without any kind of special equipment — it could be done just using a laptop or smartphone — so you could run into them anywhere. 

3. Hackers hijack your connection to social media and other sites

Finally, using public WiFi puts you at risk for session hijacking. This is when a hacker who's monitoring your WiFi traffic attempts to take over an open session you have with an online service (like a social media site or an email client) by stealing the browser cookies the service uses to recognize who you are. Once hackers have that cookie, they can pretend to be you on these sites or even find your login and password information stored inside the cookie.

5 ways to stay safe on public WiFi

1. Know your network

Before you connect, be sure you know whose network you're connecting to so you don't fall prey to WiFi honeypots. If you're not sure what the public network at a business is called, ask an employee before connecting. And check to make sure your computer or smartphone is not set up to automatically connect to WiFi networks other than your work or home — or set it to ask you before connecting. This way you'll be sure you know what you're connecting to when you connect.

2. Keep your connection secure

Make sure to connect to websites via HTTPS, which encrypts anything you send and receive from the website. While a VPN service encrypts everything you send, HTTPS ensures that communication to and from a particular website is secure. To verify if you're connected via HTTPS, look at the address bar of your browser window; you should see "HTTPS" at the beginning of the web address (or, on some web browsers, a lock icon). 

3. Use a VPN

If you use a VPN service, anyone trying to steal your personal information will see only encrypted data. Based on our own testing, as well as third-party analysis, we recommend SurfShark (on sale for $2.49 per month). It receives top marks for speed and privacy from AV Test Comparatives and is recommended by many other third party testers, including Security.orgTop10VPN, PCMag, and more. We also like the free version of ProtonVPN you're looking to protect just one device (just your laptop or just your phone). ProtonVPN is also recommended by ZDNet and Digital Trends and sits in the middle of the pack for speed, according to AV Test Comparatives.

4. Use two-factor authentication

Whenever you can, use two-factor authentication, which requires both a password and a secondary code that changes regularly, for websites and apps. This makes it very difficult for hackers to get at your accounts because even if they can get your password, they won't have the secondary code. Though not all services support it, many popular sites offer this level of security including Google, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Apple and Microsoft. Authy has a list of sites that support two-factor authentication.

5. Disable file sharing

Make sure your computer isn't configured to share access to files or be seen on public or guest networks. When you're at home, it may be convenient to keep things in a folder you share with other members of the household, but that's less safe when you're connecting to public WiFi.

Disable sharing in: 

  • Windows 10: Go to Control Panel > Network and Internet > Network and Sharing Center > Change advanced sharing settings. Turn off file and printer sharing and network discovery and save changes.
  • Mac OS X: Go to System Preferences > Sharing and be sure that File Sharing doesn't have a check mark by it.

Good luck, and safe browsing!

[This feature has been updated on 7/23/2021]

[woman with laptop via Shutterstock, HTTPS image via BigStockPhoto.com]

Elizabeth Harper is a writer and editor with more than a decade of experience covering consumer technology and entertainment. In addition to writing for Techlicious, she's Editorial Director of Blizzard Watch and is published on sites all over the web including Time, CBS, Engadget, The Daily Dot and DealNews.



Discussion loading

XfinitiWifi

From Apri on March 06, 2015 :: 7:34 pm

Is it safe to assume that the relatively new Xfinity wifi (which is now practically everywhere) is also just as vulnerable as any other public wifi?

Reply

Yes

From Josh Kirschner on March 10, 2015 :: 9:20 am

The same risks would exist for Xfinity. And, given the network’s high profile across the country, it would be a prime target for honeypotting (creating fake Xfinity hotspots that are set up specifically to steal user information).

Reply

How to keep my home Wifi from being a public hotspot

From Jettie Blevins on July 30, 2017 :: 5:59 am

I use my WiFi when I work from home and I live alone but when I check my internet for device’s I have as many as 13 different device’s on it which slows my network down to where it take’s me forever to get my work done. Is there a way to stop it from being a public hot spot an app or something? With the net work I have they charge me extra for all device’s over 10. So why am I paying for my internet service only to have the company make it a public WiFi hotspot? Thank you for your help I appreciate it.

Reply

Use a password

From Karen H. on October 09, 2017 :: 1:31 pm

One of the best ways to secure your wife is to require a password to access the network. Search “Set a password on your wifi network” or contact your wifi provider and ask them.  If your wifi is not password-protected, of course people are going to use it.  You’re paying for it and they’re using it.  It’s not hard to do but call if you can’t figure it out.

Reply

Secure WiFi

From Bazoonga on December 05, 2018 :: 8:10 pm

“How to Secure your wife”?

Reply

how can i secure my

From Sadhendra Singh on October 07, 2017 :: 6:48 am

how can i secure my privacy under a unsecured wi-fi connection?

Reply

Unsecured WiFi on iPhone and iPad

From D Smith on October 09, 2017 :: 2:02 pm

I was recently out of town and trying to use the hotel’s unsecured WiFi on my iPhone and iPad (to find some local restaurants and stores), and although I could connect to the hotel’s network, neither my iPhone nor my iPad would allow me to surf the web.  I kept getting a message that the network was unsecured.  Well… I knew that! I wasn’t about to do any banking or buying, but did what to do some finding. Is there some “safety” setting that Apple defaults on, that would prevent me from even using an unsecured network?  I poked around a bit in my settings, but nothing presented itself.

Reply

I've run into that as

From Suzanne Kantra on October 16, 2017 :: 2:03 pm

I’ve run into that as well. Did you get to the hotel page that lets you enter your info to access the web? If so, you need to “forget” the hotel network and reboot your phone. It will usually let you in then.

Reply

Not a big traveler

From D Smith on October 16, 2017 :: 2:30 pm

This particular circumstance was several weeks back, but as I recall, there was no hotel web page.  My phone showed a valid connection, but the web was nowhere to be found.

It just seemed odd, but it obviously didn’t bother me enough to take the trouble to call the front desk. I soon gave up and turned off the light.

I’ll have to try and remember the reboot trick, if there’s a next time.

Reply

How would you ensure that

From Lin Thant on October 13, 2018 :: 10:55 am

How would you ensure that users of the open access PC or the WiFi can’t access the local server?

Reply

HTTPS: Install HTTPS Everywhere

From Skeeter Sanders on December 17, 2018 :: 6:47 pm

Another way to secure your wireless internet surfing is to install HTTPS Everywhere, a browser extension that automatically routs you to the HTTPS version of websites you visit.

If a website does not have an HTTPS version, HTTPS Everywhere will immediately alert you and ask if you wish to connect anyway. If the site is one that you visit regularly, then proceed with caution.

NOTE: HTTPS Everywhere is compatible with Google Chrome, Firefox, and Opera, but is NOT compatible with Microsoft Edge, which employs its own HTTPS router.

Reply

Yahoo e-mail

From bob on August 12, 2019 :: 2:51 pm

New Yahoo email format changed and it’s so limiting.  Cant adjust/delete/add text, no printsize/bold/imogees etc.  how can I swap back to old email style.

Reply

Useless

From OBloodyHell on October 25, 2020 :: 3:57 pm

A large percentage of time, windows needs to bring up the browser to enter a password or otherwise accept a license agreement to initiate a connection.

Of course, being a @##%#$%#$^ microsoft product, NINETY PERCENT of the time it fails to do this.

How do you FORCE imbecile windows to open the browser and do the needful?

Reply

Can you explain further?

From Josh Kirschner on October 26, 2020 :: 11:04 am

Wi-Fi networks cannot initiate opening a browser window. There would be obvious security risks to allowing a network that level of control over your computer just from connecting. If a network requires you to login on a page or agree to a license agreement for access, you must manually open your browser and attempt to access the internet to trigger the interstitial login screen.

Reply

Great

From Samantha A. Short on March 16, 2021 :: 2:13 am

We have a team of experts who will assist you regarding router setup. We can walk you through the setup process. For better details, visit us.

Reply

What apps do developers use to protect there iPhones from hackers???

From Eric on June 06, 2021 :: 2:59 am

Hello my name is Eric and here lately I have had this odd feeling that my iPhone has been compromised due to free WiFi at the hotel I stayed at for the weekend.Well little did I know that IPhones can be compromised through uncecure networks. So with that all said is there an app that a tech or an iPhone user would recommend that is legit and can relax knowing that the app is got every aspect form and category of what a hacker would use to hack or steal my Information etc….. please I really need someone that knows like say what government officials use to protect there iPhones. Thanks and remember that GOD LOVE YOU ALL and so do I. ✌️

Reply

Home | About | Meet the Team | Contact Us
Media Kit | Newsletter Sponsorships
Accessibility Statement
Terms of Use | Privacy & Cookie Policy

Techlicious participates in affiliate programs, including the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, which provide a small commission from some, but not all, of the "click-thru to buy" links contained in our articles. These click-thru links are determined after the article has been written, based on price and product availability — the commissions do not impact our choice of recommended product, nor the price you pay. When you use these links, you help support our ongoing editorial mission to provide you with the best product recommendations.

© Techlicious LLC.