The Dangers of Public Wi-Fi

Mobile devices such as cell phones, laptops, or tablets, are all great tools for checking up on news, social networks, and banking information while on the go. Wi-Fi is offered at so many locations now that we now have an expectation of getting free Wi-Fi wherever we go. The caveat though, is public businesses or locations often offer only unsecure Wi-Fi connections.  Logging on to free Wi-Fi while visiting your favorite coffee shop, however, could cause you long-term grief.

Let’s face it, free Wi-Fi hotspots are convenient when you need to get some work done, but there is always a chance that what you are doing online is being accessed by someone else.  In order to protect your information, you need to make sure that you are only accessing websites that are fully encrypted or mobile apps that do not require personal or financial information.

Encryption is the only barrier keeping your personal information personal.  The way encryption works is it scrambles all information sent over the Internet into a code that is not able to be accessed by others, such as hackers.  An encrypted website protects the data that you send just over that website, but a secure Wi-Fi connection protects all the information that is sent on that network.  In order to tell if a website is encrypted and protecting your data, make sure that the beginning of the address begins with https — if it is only http, then it is not secure, and your data may be compromised.  In https, the s stands for secure.  One must always be vigilant, as some sites have encryption only on the login page instead of their entire site.

Some researchers have reported that unlike websites accessed through a mobile device, mobile apps don’t always encrypt information properly. For instance, unless a banking or shopping app is secured properly, the data that is sent can be intercepted if not logged in to a secure Wi-Fi connection. 

Wi-Fi hotspots are also another way that people use to get online if there is access to a cellular network, but like most mobile apps, these do not secure your data over their network.  To connect to a secure network using a hotspot, it must be set up as either WPA or WPA2 with a password. 

Here is a short list of items that one can follow to properly secure data that is sent over a Wi-Fi connection: 

  • When using a hotspot, only log into websites that are properly protected with https encryption. 
  • Do not stay permanently logged into your accounts.
  • Make sure passwords are not the same for all websites. 
  • Many websites will warn the user with a notification about a site that may be malicious
  • Update your mobile device’s settings so it does not automatically connect to public Wi-Fi networks. 
  • Use a VPN (Virtual Private Network) if you are constantly accessing online accounts with sensitive information.  
  • Some Wi-Fi networks use encryption, but WPA2 with a password is the strongest. 
  • There are several add-ons for browsers that can force https for all websites.

Author: Aaron Alter, IT User Services Support


Federal Trade Commission. (2014, March). Tips for using public Wi-Fi networks. Retrieved from