In a restaurant, in an airport, in a hotel, or practically in any public establishment where we have to spend more time than necessary, we are offered the possibility of connecting to public Wi-Fi. A possibility that has as its main advantage saving us the consumption of the data plan or sometimes directly being able to connect to the Internet if we do not have a contracted plan. The disadvantages, however, are even greater.
In the midst of the Internet age, digital identity and security are becoming increasingly important, for me even on a par with physical ones. Therefore, it is convenient to take precautions when connecting to the network and, in a way, expose ourselves to the rest of the world. In this sense, public Wi-Fi can be a door wide open to our data if we do not take the appropriate security measures.
Why you should protect yourself when using a public network
Why are public Wi-Fi networks a danger? Actually, it is not that they are a danger for the simple fact of being public, but that they are more likely to reduce the privacy of the user. A Wi-Fi network is the Internet access channel through which all data passes between the user’s device and the Network. At home or in known Wi-Fi networks (in principle) we are sure that nobody controls said Wi-Fi network -Fi apart from us, in public Wi-Fi networks the configuration behind it is beyond our knowledge.
These types of networks can therefore be used with different intentions in addition to granting an Internet connection to users. Some of them are the following:
– Carry out MitM attacks: The abbreviation of Man in the Middle, a type of attack on communication networks that, as its name indicates, is based on placing itself in the middle of communication to intercept data. In other words, the attacker has access to your device’s connection to the Internet thanks to the public Wi-Fi network. From there, it can read and even modify the data that is transferred between the device and Internet servers.
– Downloading data by third parties: Similar to MitM attacks we find sniffers, in this case, the attacker simply collects all possible data that is transferred through the public Wi-Fi network to later analyze it and search for sensitive or relevant information.
– Distributing malware: Attacks are not always about intercepting data that is transferred between the device and the Internet, sometimes they are based on simply placing malicious software on devices to either obtain and collect data in the future or damage the equipment.
If we are not using the Wi-Fi connection, it should even be turned off to prevent it from automatically connecting to public Wi-Fi networks. All the previous reasons are further aggravated when the Wi-Fi network connection is not encrypted. Although it is about the router or access point being always encrypted, often this configuration is not carried out. In such a case it is much easier for the attacker to carry out a MitM attack or penetrate the Wi-Fi network to control it.
Actions I take when connecting to public or unknown Wi-Fi
Over the years, data plans to access the Internet from smartphones have improved and the occasions when we need to connect to unknown Wi-Fi networks have decreased. However, if it happens that we have to do it, there are a series of interesting measures that must be taken into account.
VPN connection, always
A virtual private network is the best measure to take when connecting to unreliable Wi-Fi networks. We already explained VPN connections in depth. In a very summarized way, it is about creating a private network that works on a public network, with all the security advantages that a private network supposes. For example, hide the real location, avoid geolocation censorship, or create encrypted data tunnels that prevent traffic from being intercepted so easily.
VPN connections are easily set up on most of today’s devices. In the system settings, we usually find a section to add the connection data to a VPN (name, server, access password…).
You can download a VPN and take a look at the detailed instructions for Windows, Android, Mac, and iOS, although most VPN services offer their own apps that make this connection easier. Once configured and active, all connections (it doesn’t matter if they are through the browser or independent apps) external to the device will go through the virtual private network previously.
Now, which VPN service to choose? There are a number of factors to take into account, such as the location of the company’s servers, the speed they promise, the apps for devices they have, or what data they store. Of course, also the price is an important factor. The only thing that is always recommended to avoid is free VPNs.
Prioritize the mobile connection
Before connecting to a public Wi-Fi network, we should consider whether we really need to do so. Is it for a specific consultation? If you are not going to spend a lot of data from the plan contracted with the operator, it may be worth not connecting. Is it possible to access the Internet with a computer? The smartphone offers its own access point to connect using the phone’s data.
Check that it is a legitimate network and not a fake
Sometimes there is more than one network that has a similar name, sometimes it does not have the proper name of the place or sometimes there is not even its own Wi-Fi network. Nothing is easier for an attacker than to make the user believe that they are connecting to the trusted network of the establishment. When in reality you are connecting to a fake Wi-Fi network completely controlled by the attacker. The best thing if we are not sure is to ask someone responsible for the premises what is the real Wi-Fi network they have.
Connections to web pages by HTTPS
The main browsers of current operating systems already alert us if a connection to a web page is not secure. Connections to different Internet sites are made more and more securely through the HTTPS protocol, It is not infallible but it is more secure than its predecessor HTTP by using the SSL/TLS security protocol to encrypt the data. If you are going to access a web page that is not HTTPS, it is best to try to avoid it, especially if it is done from a public Wi-Fi network where you may be more exposed than on your own Wi-Fi network. Because? As it is an unencrypted transfer over HTTP, it is easier for the attacker to intercept the data that is being transmitted.
No entering or accessing of sensitive data
I have as a sacred rule not to carry out any action that involves money. For example, no purchase where I have to enter my credit card information. Same thing with Internet account logins, the fewer the better.
Devices always up to date
Keeping your phone, tablet, or computer updated to the latest version is always recommended. Operating system updates, in addition to the new features and functions they bring, often include security improvements and vulnerability updates. Keeping the device up to date is advice that applies in general and not only when using public Wi-Fi networks, although this is where it becomes more important.
In short, the more public or unknown Wi-Fi networks can be avoided, the better. If it happens that we have to access one of them, it is important to take the greatest possible precautionary measures and, of course, use common sense.