Home Insights & Advice The risks that come with using free wi-fi

The risks that come with using free wi-fi

by John Saunders
22nd Jul 21 1:00 pm

Unsecured public networks hold the potential to make all your private information public. It doesn’t matter how reputable the company is, and it doesn’t matter how many other people are browsing on the same network; if it’s a public Wi-Fi network that anyone can access, you might be in trouble. Most people know of the common hazards that come with surfing on these networks, like their passwords being stolen, but there can be far more dangerous ones than these. For example, did you know service providers can track your location? In this article, we’ll be addressing the various security threats that free Wi-Fi poses and how you can protect yourself.

What are some risks that come with connecting to free Wi-Fi?

1. Man-in-the-middle attacks

 This attack refers to when an attacker intercepts the internet traffic between your device and the website you’re accessing. This is commonly used to steal your passwords or even redirect your device to a fake site that resembles the original. This would prevent the authentic website from receiving your data, and you’d be none the wiser.

Man-in-the-middle attacks have become much more sophisticated, with new variants like IP spoofing and stealing browser cookies being more commonly used.

2. Location tracking

When you connect to a public Wi-Fi network, you’ll be directed to a web page to provide your email address or a phone number to log in. The rationale behind this is so you can easily log in in the future with the same information, almost making it a substitute for a username.

The minute you click on “Accept terms and conditions”, you’ve likely fallen prey to the trick. Most of these policies state that by agreeing, you consent to collecting your data, which can range from your device’s location or your browsing data.

The service provider will then link your email address and phone number to your device’s Media Access Control (MAC) address, so whenever you connect to their Wi-Fi, they know it’s you.  If you thought it couldn’t get any worse, think about this: most service providers provide their connection services in hundreds of establishments. This means that if you visit an eatery with the same service provider, you can be identified there.

This raises the question of tracking. Is this data being used to map out our movements?

In short, yes.

Advertisers organise this so that they can serve their customers better. Take this example: You visit Store X on Monday at 3 PM. You proceed to do so again at 3 PM on Thursday, and this pattern repeats for several weeks in a row. It can thus be established that you have a habit of visiting the store on Mondays and Thursdays at that particular time. Advertisers can use this information from thousands of people to anticipate how crowded a store would be on any given day. Staffing can then be arranged around the numbers of this, enabling a better in-store experience.

However useful this might be in real life, it poses a serious privacy threat if it fell into the hands of someone who didn’t have such pure intentions.

It’s not just the occasional store owner. Location tracking is being adopted by major companies and even a few government organisations, including London’s Tube network.

In mid-2019, Transport for London (TfL) announced that Wi-Fi tracking would be the new default. The reason behind it was to better understand how commuters navigated the network so they could prevent congestions and delays.

If a commuter wanted to opt out, they’d have to disable their Wi-Fi altogether or put their phone into Airplane mode as they used the network. While TfL claimed that the collected MAC addresses would be depersonalised and encrypted to prevent any possibility of identification, attempts in recent years to reverse engineer this type of encryption have proven successful.

How can a residential proxy help?

A residential proxy can keep your information safe from hackers and other insidious third parties. It allows you to change your IP address, so your actual IP address remains hidden.

What can you do to protect yourself?

In addition to using a residential proxy, here are a few things you can do to keep your data private.

  1. Use a VPN. These function a little differently from a residential proxy. VPNs encrypt your data travelling to and from your device, keeping it safe from the prying eyes of your network provider and hackers.
  2. Do not send any sensitive information on public networks. It’s one thing for them to identify you; it’s another thing entirely for them to have your banking information. Do not, under any circumstance, attempt to access or send your personal information over an unsecured public network.
  3. Stay off social media on public Wi-Fi. You might think your social media profile is unimportant, but it’s a treasure trove of information on you. Regardless of how many likes you get on each post, it’s still a private part of your life, so wait till you get home to add your next Instagram story.
  4. Read the privacy policy. No one likes reading giant blocks of text, but when they involve the collection of your private data, it couldn’t hurt to take a peek. At the bare minimum, you should skim through the Privacy Policy and Terms and Conditions. Companies take advantage of the fact that very few people read these and fill them with clauses to trap you.
  5. Disable your Wi-Fi when you’re not using it. If you’re passing by a familiar area, your phone might remember the network and connect to it automatically, which can cause a major issue if you’re not aware of it. Turning your Wi-Fi off also saves you battery life, so do it whenever you’re not using the Internet.

In conclusion…

We don’t want to scare you away from using free Wi-Fi. It has tonnes of advantages, and if you ever find yourself out of data, it might be your best bet at getting online. However, you need to be careful when you connect to an unsecured public network using free Wi-Fi. Using the tips we’ve given you in this article and by surfing with discretion, you’ll be that much closer to remaining safe online.

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