Many of us don’t think twice before logging onto a public Wi-Fi network. The convenience of using our laptop, tablet, or smartphone while we sit at our local coffee shop or bookstore may seem pretty harmless. Many of us also use the free Wi-Fi available while dining at a restaurant, shopping at retailers, or waiting at an auto repair shop for our tires to be rotated. We also might prefer to tap into public Wi-Fi systems when visiting the dentist, the veterinarian, or other healthcare providers. Some of us might even provide such networks for our clients and patients in our own waiting rooms. Wi-Fi hotspots are everywhere, and their widespread availability can cause us to let our guards down, particularly when questioning the privacy and security of these public networks.
The Potential Risks & Consequences of Using Public Wi-Fi Networks
The term “public Wi-Fi” should alert us that it is, indeed, a space that is open to anyone, including hackers who steal sensitive information from users. However, so many of us join a public hotspot without considering that hackers can act invisibly, inserting their devices into the public Wi-Fi network that we are using. A common hacker scheme is to create a Wi-Fi network with a title similar to the name of the network we intend to join. For instance, the name of our favorite coffee house can be altered slightly by a hacker, leading us to join the wrong network when quickly trying to connect mistakenly. This essentially allows the hacker access to our device and everything on it. Using this classic spying method, the hacker can easily record everything we do, including passwords, to access our supposedly protected accounts. They can also insert spyware or viruses onto our devices through this process. As if all of these attacks on our privacy and security weren’t bad enough, hackers use software kits that allow them to have a full view of Wi-Fi transmissions.
Hackers aren’t the only ones engaging in unethical and illegal activity by taking advantage of public Wi-Fi. Businesses and retailers have ways to legally utilize our data, such as the websites we visit and how much time we spend browsing certain pages on these sites, simply because we’re using their Wi-Fi. Companies then use this information about us to advertise their products or services. They even sell this valuable consumer data to other companies.
How We Can Protect Ourselves
Learning about the dangers of public Wi-Fi may make us want to swear off using Wi-Fi systems for good. Some of us might be wondering why businesses don’t routinely offer more secure networks. In truth, most businesses don’t promise secure networks, and most consumers never ask.
Protecting our online privacy and security is something we must vigilantly accept as our personal and professional responsibility. One primary way to protect our privacy is by connecting to public Wi-Fi using a Virtual Private Network (VPN), which protects us against anyone intercepting our information. If we don’t have a VPN, our next best option is to use our phone’s cellular connection since this is much safer than any public Wi-Fi. Some iPhones offer the option of toggling on a VPN (found in the settings section). We also may want to disable the feature on our phones that automatically connects us to public networks whenever we walk into a hot spot area. Finally, we may always keep Wi-Fi off on our phones anytime we’re not using Wi-Fi.
When using apps that require Wi-Fi, change the settings so that Wi-Fi is only used when actually using the app. It is a good idea to disable file sharing on our devices as well. This stops hackers from accessing our files and information. If we choose to use Wi-Fi systems, it is always important to update our devices and apps to run the latest security patches. Serious HIPAA infractions have been reported and behavioral health agencies fined by the Office for Civil Rights for failing to do so, and patient records are made public. See Telehealth.org’s Vulnerability Management – $150,000 Fine Issued for Unpatched Software, which reported a fine paid by an Alaskan community mental health agency that failed to update its patches and more. In many cases, reporting a simple issue such as failing to update software can lead to an investigation, uncovering a wide range of other HIPAA infractions. Similarly, we also need to make use of antivirus software on all our devices.
Other obvious but largely under-utilized safety and security practices include ensuring we know the exact name and spelling of any public Wi-Fi network we wish to use when logging in. Using a tracking blocker will help protect us when using a free hot spot. The other habit to develop is to log out of any account after using it, particularly after logging into a protected area. Enabling the “always use HTTPS” option is always a good idea when ensuring all of our actions are encrypted. Lastly, it is good to look at the URL when browsing websites to see if an “s” is part of the address. For example, if you glance up at the URL of this article, you will see that the address to the Telehealth.org website starts with “https.” That extra “s” lets you know that the website has taken the extra step of providing added measures for your protection.
Knowledge is power when it comes to staying secure on public Wi-Fi networks. If we apply these precautions and procedures, we can still benefit from the efficiency of taking our work or business mobile and logging in when we’re on the go while also maintaining the utmost privacy, security, and peace of mind.
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