How safe is Public WiFi?

Kris WilkinsonMarch 11, 2021

Here’s a scenario: You’re in an airport waiting to board your flight. You remember that you need to transfer some funds between bank accounts. You open your laptop and are about to connect to a public WiFi hotspot. Should you?

Wireless hotspots are extremely common. In high traffic areas (airports, waiting rooms, etc) it is more and more common to see them open for public use. But whose wireless network are you connecting to? Can you judge a book by its cover?

A “man in the middle” attack involves someone getting between you and your destination and intercepting whatever you’re doing. In the context of public WiFi, such an attack could lead to someone obtaining passwords or sensitive emails all because you needed an internet connection for 5 minutes.

With that in mind, a wireless hotspot named “YYC Public WiFi” might not appear out of place if you’re sitting in the Calgary International Airport, but the name alone doesn’t mean it is legitimate. Anyone could host that hotspot from their laptop or mobile device and pretend to be something they’re not. With the right name, tricking people into connecting can be very easy.

So how can you avoid malicious public hotspots? The best option would be to connect your laptop to your phone. Most smartphones allow you to tether your other devices via your own personal WiFi, Bluetooth, or USB connection. Tethering will give your laptop or tablet internet access via your mobile phone network. Banking or emailing while tethered might use up a small amount of data on your mobile plan, but it is well worth the knowledge that you’re connected to a trusted source.

It’s important to note that if you are tethering you should not be using it to watch movies or download large media. The cellular data plan is limited in size, you could exceed your allowance very quickly with movies and music.

Be mindful of what you’re connecting to and what you’re doing. If you do need to connect to public WiFi, check with local staff or posted signage to ensure an access point is legitimate. If any work you’re doing involves sensitive information it’s always better to tether unless you are absolutely sure the wireless network is safe.