Is it safe to use public wi-fi?

Discover how to make using public wi-fi safer and precautions you can take to avoid getting hacked.

Key points

  • Public wi-fi isn't a secure way to access the internet and should be treated with caution
  • Using your mobile phone network or a VPN will give you a private connection on the go
  • Keep your firewall updated to help minimise your risk of being hacked

Using your phone, tablet or laptop on the go can make you reliant on public wi-fi, but it's not without its dangers.

We've been told that hackers are all around, waiting for us to slip up so they can slide on into our email accounts and take advantage of the rich pickings on offer.

However, with everywhere from your local library to the cafe round the corner offering up free wi-fi during your visit, it can't be that dangerous right? WRONG!

Public wi-fi isn't safeguarded, so it's best to keep to tasks that don't require entering any sort of password or personal information, like reading the news or perusing a gripping online personal finance magazine (ahem ahem).

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Once your email account has been penetrated, hackers can reset passwords for things like your internet banking and PayPal accounts, so they're able to access and abuse your online activities.

Luckily there are certain things to look out for and ways to protect your personal information, so let's take a look shall we?

Two-factor authentication

Most email providers, like Gmail and Yahoo, will implement a two-factor authentication process, which means that if a new device tries to sign into your email, it'll have to be authenticated via a phone linked to your account.

This can help to prevent hackers from swooping into your private affairs and keeps your confidential emails (and all those cat memes) secure.

The great wi-fi name switcheroo

Although you may have changed your wi-fi name at home to something utterly amusing like 'Pretty fly for a wi-fi', 'IthurtswhenIP' or 'Wu-Tang Lan', the chances are that the establishment you're visiting will probably name their wi-fi after their company or place name.

This is what hackers are reliant upon, so they can set up a wi-fi hotspot with a name very similar hoping to trick unsuspecting members of the public.

Always make sure that you ask a member of staff what the exact name of their wi-fi is before connecting and if you're still not sure, perhaps wait until you get home to get your next Facebook hit.

Use your mobile phone network

Image of a woman looking at a tablet

You may be able to use your mobile phone network provider to access the internet using 3G or 4G (and perhaps even 5G in the future). 

This will give you a secure network to do your internet bidding and you won't need to access public wi-fi.

However, be aware that if you do use a mobile phone network it will eat into your data, so make sure you don't go over your agreed data limit, or you could end up paying eye-watering data charges.

Use different passwords

Everything requires a password nowadays, from your Amazon account to internet banking, but who has the capacity to remember a mountain of passwords?

It can be difficult, but unfortunately necessary to have an army of strong passwords ('password1' doesn't count) at your disposal, because if you use the same one for every website and app you use, it can be easy for hackers to access everything that you do online.

You're basically giving them the keys to your personal information and rolling out the welcome mat.

Use a VPN

A VPN or virtual private network connects you to the internet using a server run by your chosen VPN provider. Typically you pay for this monthly or annually.

All data sent between your device and the server will be encrypted using a VPN, making it a lot harder for potential hackers to gain access to your personal information.

So you can use public wi-fi, safe in the knowledge that your data is encrypted.

Change your settings

Your mobile device may be your own worst enemy when it comes to security - if set up to do so, it can automatically connect to the nearest wi-fi.

Double check your settings and make sure that you're not casually connecting with every hotspot you flounce by - what would your mother say?

Make sure you have https

If you spy 'https' at the beginning of a website, it means that it's secure and that data sent between you and the site will be encrypted.

Be wary of any sites that you're trying to access without it. You may also get alerts from your browser or firewall if you're about to enter dodgy online territory. Don't just dismiss them, they've got your back.

Log out

Try to remember to log out when you're ready to navigate away from a site where you entered personal information.

Remaining in a logged in state forever more can make hacking your accounts as easy as pie for those internet lurkers.

By Abbie Laughton-Coles