Remote work opens the door to a whole new world of possibilities. Instead of being tied to a desk in an office, remote workers have the flexibility to work from anywhere, including their homes, coffee shops, coworking spaces, or virtually any place with internet connectivity. Although accessing the internet from anywhere is convenient, it does come with inherent risks.
A public Wi-Fi network is less secure than your company, coworking space, or home network. Public Wi-Fi is just that—public—meaning anyone or anything can access it. You don’t know who else is on the network, who set up the network, and if that network has any cybersecurity measures in place.
If you regularly tap into public Wi-Fi networks, keep reading to learn more about some of the possible dangers you might encounter, as well as a few ways to keep yourself secure.
The Risks of Using Public Wi-Fi
1. Man-in-the-Middle Attacks
The most prominent cybersecurity threat that exists when using public Wi-Fi is a man-in-the-middle attack. In this type of cyberattack, hackers position themselves between the device connecting to the public Wi-Fi and the connection point. By doing this, hackers can read the data being transmitted between that device and the internet. Credit card information, emails, credentials, and passwords are all easily accessible to the man in the middle. This means employees who work on public Wi-Fi could unknowingly expose critical, confidential business information that could compromise their company.
2. Rogue Hotspots
Maybe the easiest way for hackers to compromise your device is deceiving end users into using their “rogue” Wi-Fi hotspot instead of a legitimate public or business Wi-Fi hotspot. All a hacker needs to do is set up a rogue access point with a name that looks legitimate. For example, a hacker could create a hotspot with the name “McDonald’s Wi-Fi.” Because it looks legitimate, users are likely to select it and not have a clue that they have just compromised their device.
By tricking users into using their access points, the hacker can easily gain access to any information transmitted while using the rogue access point, collecting personal information and stealing company data.
3. Distribution of Malware
Plenty of devices allow for automatic file-sharing over a Wi-Fi connection, but that feature is a huge weakness on public Wi-Fi. A hacker on the same network could easily use file-sharing to insert malware onto the device. Once this malicious code infects your computer, hackers can view, steal, or delete data, hijack core device functionalities, and spy on user activity. Essentially, a computer infected with malware is one of the most dangerous and harmful cyberattacks that a remote worker and their business can experience.
4. Snooping and Sniffing
Yet another way that cybercriminals pose a threat to public Wi-Fi users is through snooping and sniffing. Cybercriminals can buy special software kits that allow them to “sniff out” data packets on an unsecure Wi-Fi connection. This allows them to view online activity, including websites that users visit, login credentials, and credit card information—which may then allow them to take over accounts.
5. Ad Hoc Attacks
This one is a more common risk for PCs running older versions of Windows XP. Certain networks, known as ad hoc networks, look like free Wi-Fi networks—but they’re actually just networks between devices rather than internet access points. Worse, connecting to an ad hoc network turns your device into a beacon broadcasting the same network. If a hacker spots one of these ad hoc networks, they effectively have a direct point of access to the computer broadcasting it.
6. Worm Attacks
The problem with a worm attack is that a hacker doesn’t even have to be directly involved. Unlike viruses, worms don’t need programs in order to compromise a device. Because of this quality, worms can jump from system to system on an unsecure public Wi-Fi network. So, if someone unknowingly logs on to the coffee shop Wi-Fi with a worm on their system, that worm could spread to anyone else that is using that same network.
How to Minimize the Risks of Using Public Wi-Fi
- Be aware. First and foremost, be aware of the types of attacks that hackers will use to expose your system, and take proper precautions.
- Use a VPN. This is perhaps the easiest and most important safeguard when using public Wi-Fi. A Virtual Private Network (VPN) is simple to set up for yourself or your company. VPNs encrypt the data that is transmitted to the server, even on a public connection, which makes it difficult for hackers to view or steal your data.
- Be picky about networks. Verify any connection you want to use. For example, when using a hotel’s Wi-Fi, ask the front desk what the name of the Wi-Fi hotspot is to avoid using a rogue hotspot. Additionally, some public places that emphasize safety and security, such as college campuses, have more secure Wi-Fi connectivity options to mitigate cybersecurity risks, so opt for those when you can.
- Update your device settings. Tweaking a few device settings can make devices much more secure. Change settings so that your devices don’t automatically search for new network connections, adjust Bluetooth discoverability settings, and turn off any automatic file-sharing options.
- Consider your device security. A quality security software can detect any attacks or vulnerabilities on devices. Anti-malware software with anti-sniffing capabilities will ensure that, even if a hacker tries to access or infect your system, the software detects and eliminates the threat.
- Use a mobile hotspot. Better yet, forget public Wi-Fi altogether. Even with safeguards in place, using an unsecure Wi-Fi network still makes devices vulnerable to cyberattacks. Instead, tether your computer to your mobile device or use a mobile hotspot to access the internet.
- Only allow HTTPS. Don’t visit sites that only use HTTP protocol, as those are less secure. Make sure any site you visit begins with HTTPS.
If you are a business owner with workers who often conduct business in public spaces, think about establishing formal policies and procedures that incorporate the above safeguards. Make sure employees are aware of just how important the health and security of their work device is to the company. Educate employees on cybersecurity, and train and remind them often. Doing so will keep your company data safe and secure.
Remember, you’re never fully secure online, so you have to stay vigilant when it comes to protecting sensitive information. But if you implement the suggestions above and maintain other general security best practices, you’ll be set up to browse (or work) wisely from anywhere.
Elaine is a digital journalist with a technical writing background. She currently focuses on all things security and sustainability at home and in the work place. As an involved citizen in her own community, she has a passion for helping small businesses and families succeed in their local communities. Elaine has written for a variety of online publications.