Using Public WiFi: Is it Safe?

Alexander Laine | April 21st 2019

image of a person using a phone

On the use of public WiFi

One second you’re using navigation to locate that cafe you passed by once but couldn’t remember where, the next minute you’re sending a photo to your friend because you swear you saw them from the streetcar. In the cafe, you need to check your bank balance, just to be sure you’re chequing account is in order.

All of this takes data, and data is EXPENSIVE -- that’s why you’re probably using free public WiFi hotspots because who doesn’t like free data.

But with that comes a catch that everyone has to be fully aware of. A public network is a dangerous place to access something like your bank data -- especially if there is someone who knows what they’re doing on that network.

What’s the risk?

Firstly, with a little know how (we won’t be publishing any mention of what applications one could use to do this) -- anyone on a public network (that doesn’t require a password) can packet sniff, and see what others are doing on the network. For straight http sites, someone can easily see the exact page you’re on. For https:// sites (SSL encrypted) they won’t be able to tell what you’re doing, but they can absolutely see the URL you’re visiting, which coupled with packet sniffing or any physical hacking (easily possible in a cafe setting), can be extremely dangerous.

So what can you do?

First and foremost, recognise what you’re using WiFi for, and make sure to always note when WiFi is enabled on your device. The latter is something that’s very easy to forget. You might not even realize your phone is automatically connecting to an open network.

To help you remember that WiFi is on, the easiest solution is to simply turn it off, and only turn it on when you want it. This will also save battery life, so it’s a great practice.

Secondly, take the time to go into your phone’s settings and turn on “always ask before connecting.” When this is enabled on iOS devices, anytime your phone sniffs out a WiFi network, unless you tell your device to remember the network, it will ask you (in no matter what application you’re running) if you want to attempt to connect to the networks around you.

Network Obfuscation

Simply being aware of the risks of public WiFi is not enough. If you’re checking something as personally valuable as your bank information on a public cafe, you should consider the practice of network obfuscation using tunneling applications like Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), and proxies.

These services mask your IP address by connecting to external encrypted servers. When using a VPN or proxy, any observers on the network will see the encrypted VPN connection as a more or less continual connection to a server-- but nothing else. Unless there is more advanced packet sniffing on the end node of the VPN connection, no one on that public network should be able to see what you’re doing.

With using a VPN or proxy comes the acceptance of the fact that both the server owner, and VPN service could very easily track all data that is using their service. This is why you should absolutely read the permissions and privacy policies on the VPN app you’re using, and to always question the ownership and validity of the service.

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