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What infomation can other people see when you're on public WiFi?

Public WiFi is available where ever you go nowadays to attract more people to their establishments but did you know it is also known as the

Published by Claire Broadley

Public Wi-Fi is a convenience few of us could live without. If you’re on holiday, short on data, low on 4G signal, or working remotely, an open network can be a huge draw. That’s why so many cafes, hotels, and supermarkets now have public Wi-Fi for everyone to use.

Any network that doesn’t require a password is potentially not secure, and should only ever used for basic internet usage as a last resort. The exception to the rule is using a VPN with the public Wi-Fi hotspot, which we’ll look at later.

What You Reveal on Public-WiFi

We’re so used to browsing the internet privately that sometimes we don’t give a second thought to the things we’re doing on Wi-Fi.

But there are some potentially disastrous consequences of using public Wi-Fi networks.

We aren’t just talking about hackers here. The owner of the network can also see what you’re up to as you browse and buy.

Photo by Bench Accounting on Unsplash

You may reveal things like:

  • The sites you’re visiting -- even if you’re connected through HTTPS; for example, if you visit your Twitter profile, they can pick up your username from the URL, or the certificate in some cases

  • Anything sent through a non-secure form; your bank’s forms may be secure, but your hotel’s may not be

  • The amount of data you’re using; if you’re hogging bandwidth constantly, they’ll be able to tell you’re streaming or downloading video

  • The files on your laptop, if it’s not set up properly.

Essentially, you should assume that all unencrypted data sent between your phone and the hotspot is visible to someone else, and some of the encrypted data won’t be difficult to figure out.

On public Wi-Fi, a hacker could also:

  • Implant data (like a fake login form) on a website you’re using to capture your information

  • See the Wi-Fi networks you use -- your hotel, your local Starbucks

  • Hoover up your passwords -- this is a particular problem if you recycle passwords on multiple sites.

In fact, public Wi-Fi has been called “a hacker’s playground”.

Think about it: if someone gets into your email account, they can change the password for lots of other things, because they have the access they need to verify the change.

I’m Not Doing Anything Illegal -- Who Cares?

It’s easy to assume that nobody really cares what you’re doing online. Or to believe you are safe because you have nothing to hide.

That’s a bit like saying you’ll leave your car unlocked because there’s nothing valuable in it. I mean, you could do that… but why would you risk having it stolen?

Public Wi-Fi snooping is a problem regardless, because:

  • You could reveal your name (from your device’s name or social media URLs)

  • It would be relatively easy to then find your photo, location, and other data

  • It takes a surprisingly small amount of information to steal someone’s identity

  • Personal data is valuable, even if it’s just an email address

  • If you’re using public Wi-Fi, and your bank account gets hacked into, your bank may refuse to help.

Theoretically, someone could track your activity, figure out your name, and scam you. Or follow you back to your hotel. Or wait for you there late at night. It often isn’t a risk worth taking.

Being Safe on Public Wi-Fi

Want to stay safe? The easiest way is to use a VPN from a reputable company. The second best option is to stick to mobile data.

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

You should also have two-factor authentication switched on for every service that offers it. (And then keep close tabs on your phone.) If you use a laptop on public Wi-Fi, make sure file sharing is switched off when you’re on public networks.

If you have the option of using an authentication app, Authy is a great solution. Some of the others don’t allow you to restore your codes if you get a new phone.