When most people go about their usual business, every now and then they look at their phone and see a free WiFi that was left unlocked. Most will then immediately proceed to connect to the network, not thinking twice about it. Most will then be robbed of their personal information from their social media, emails, online shopping, and even online banking.
Public networks are a dangerous place and a real breeding ground for hackers. Not only do they use them to hack and steal everyone who gets in contact with the networks they control, they might even erase everything you have on your phone, tablet or laptop, and in some cases, they’ll use ransomware that will lock away your content and prevent you from using it until you pay for it.
All of these and many other dangers could be encountered during your walk to the store or sitting in a park on a beautiful, spring day.
Public WiFi Policies
When you try to connect to a public WiFi, most of the time, you’ll get terms and conditions that you’ll need to agree with to use it. If you just mindlessly hit Agree, just so that you’d get your internet connection, you might be in big trouble. Most of these WiFi networks are REALLY insecure, even if they’re legitimate, and not just some hacker’s trick that’s being used to rob you of your credentials.
It comes as quite a surprise, but many of the networks openly admit how insecure they are. Let’s see some of the public networks and what they say about themselves:
“The university of Colorado” says that WiFi is an insecure medium by its very nature and that any info, whether it’s received or sent, can be accessed by a third party. “Suddenlink” wants you to acknowledge that their Service isn’t secure and that any form of communication through it can be intercepted.
Broward County, MidMichigan Health, Arqiva, Tim Hortons and even Melbourne Airport all say the same thing. Basically, networks are not safe for casual use if you don’t protect yourself, and the seriousness of the issue is apparent when even the Airports admit the flaws in the system.
Are Insecure Networks Really That Bad?
The answer is Yes, they are. Once you connect to one of them, anyone close to you can see what programs you’re running, what sites you visit and alike. You’d be as safe as having a screen the size of the billboard that you carry around while you surf the web. Anyone skilled with computers, systems, and hacking can see what you’re doing, and sooner or later, they’re bound to find something to incriminate you, whether it’s something scandalous, political, unsavory, or just simply embarrassing.
This information can and probably will be used against you. You might be targeted by hacking attacks, or maybe phishing attacks. You or your company might get blackmailed, which could lead to you losing your job, or even a company failure, which could cost many people their jobs. They can even steal your identity and impersonate you, cause financial damage to your bank account, have their fun, and leave you to suffer the consequences. So yeah, it’s bad, seriously bad.
Networks Themselves Might Collect Your Data
Let’s say that you found a network that is virus free, hacker free, properly maintained and so on. Is it ok to connect now? Sure, if you don’t mind the fact that the network itself might keep your data for itself. This is also mentioned in terms and conditions you were so quick to agree with. And who knows what might happen with your data. The network might sell it to the highest bidder, or some especially skilled hacker might just come and take it.
“City and Country of San Francisco” openly admits that the city might collect info about the geographic locations from which you connect to the WiFi services. So, they’re going to track you. Melbourne Airport also wants your location data, so they’ll know exactly where you are at all times. Even at the Oscars, your info is recorded and will be shared with law enforcement, the Academy partners, and maybe even the Academy vendors too.
Puerto Rico District Court openly says that all of the communications over their Service will be monitored and that it should not be considered safe, private or protected, and this is also true for Panera Bread.
Target, Virgin Media, St. Elizabeth Healthcare, Hong Kong Government and many, many more networks all say the same thing, that your information will be collected and used as they see fit. Now, since most of the data they want to collect concerns location, transmissions, communications, activities and alike, which is also known as metadata, you’d think that it can’t be too damaging for you and your privacy. You’d be wrong.
The Reason Why It Is Bad To Share Your Metadata
To answer this, let’s first think about what that might include. Those who want your metadata will collect the information about the websites you visit, details of your exact location, duration of every one of your browsing sessions, the details about services you prefer to use, and even the unique identifier of your computer.
Basically, they want to know everything about you. Where you go, what you do, what interests you and what you’re trying to hide and do when you think you’re alone. This invasion of your privacy is also extremely useful to advertisers, hackers, and the government institutions.
Advertisers want to know what you like, where you eat and other things like that so that they could target you with relevant apps, while hackers want to steal your money, secrets and have some fun by ruining your life. Just imagine a hacker breaking into your systems and finding out that you’re planning a long trip.
They’ll see when you’re not home, they’ll see what kind of security you have, and they know what you have to offer. All they have to do is sell this info to a thief, and everything you’ve worked so hard to get will be gone before you arrive at your destination.
How Can Networks Meddle With Your Internet
Many of these networks will try to influence your internet reach, and decide what you can and can’t get access to. This is mostly in fear of sea of complaints and lawsuits. They also mentioned this in those terms and conditions. You should really read that next time you try to connect to a public network.
The good old Melbourne Airport has stated that they may decide to block or at least limit your access to certain sites and content that’s considered not to be family friendly.
UK’s Cloud does the same if it thinks that something’s not appropriate for the public environment. This may include anything that’s related to drug use, offensive or illegal speech, pornography or network malfeasance.
Virgin Media asks that you accept the same thing.
Why Shouldn’t They Block Drugs And Pornography?
Because the Internet is a place that promotes freedom, and if they start blocking, they won’t stop. Sure, they’ll start with porn and drugs and say it’s because those are bad things, but eventually, they’ll start blocking websites of their business rivals because that way they can increase their own sales.
This is not what online freedom means. And it’s easier and better to have porn available at all times and choose not to watch it than to have someone else dictate what you can and can’t access. Censorship does have it’s good uses, and it would be fine if it knew when’s enough. Sadly, that is not the case.
There Are Nice Guys Too
Not all of the public networks are like that, though, and here are some honorable mentions.
City and County of San Francisco, for example. Their statement says that the city doesn’t store any content concerning data transfers and online communications. Even though they will collect your online data, as we mentioned earlier. But they’re not all bad, as you can see.
Atlanta Airport also says that they won’t restrict your internet access, nor spy on your communications. Now that’s some privacy respect. Similar promises were also given by Darwin, Starbucks Australia, Suddenlink, and Arqiva.
How To Protect Yourself
If you have to use one of those public networks, there are ways to protect yourself. Those include Proxy services, VPNs, Tor browser and alike.
Proxies are the cheapest option and don’t really do a good job, but they still made it to the list because they mask your IP address and hide your location. Tor browser is pretty good, it hides your IP, and encrypts your data that’s being sent around the world so that everyone who might want to try and track it down will loose it in the process. Tor is also free, but the problem is that it’s really slow, and that can mess with your streaming or downloading, which is not recommended.
The best option is to use VPNs. They do cost if you want a decent service, but the price isn’t that big, and they’ll hide your IP, encrypt your data, allow you to access blocked content, keep no logs and won’t slow down your speed. When it comes to VPNs, we recommend TorGuard, IPVanish, PIA or GhostVPN.
So, those are the ways to protect yourself if you have to use one of the public networks. Note that using them is a bad idea, but if the situation prevents you from doing anything else, be sure that you know what you’re accepting and getting yourself into.