Harvard Business Review: Don’t Use Public WiFi (Without a VPN)!

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Earlier this year, the Harvard Business Review published a story about the hidden dangers of public WiFi networks and urged everyone to stop using them. They cited a recent study conducted by the Identity Theft Resource Center® (ITRC) in conjunction with Private WiFi which indicated that nearly 80% of people admit to using public WiFi without properly protecting themselves.

The study mentioned above also showed that 76% of respondents believe using a free WiFi connection can lead to identity theft. So why do we keep using public WiFi when so many of us are at least somewhat aware of these risks?

It seems like most of us just can’t help ourselves when it comes to taking advantage of public WiFi. Case in point: at both the Republican and Democratic national conventions in 2016, a private company offered free (but comply unsecure) WiFi. Over 70% of attendees happily logged on.

If we use public WiFi networks on a regular basis (and that includes most of us), we should at least be aware of why it’s so risky.

Why Public WiFi is So Dangerous

Maybe you think the problem is exaggerated, or perhaps you think it only happens to a small number of people. The truth is that each year, over half of the adult population has their personal information exposed to hackers.

The truth is that it’s exceptionally easy for novice hackers to spy on anyone using public WiFi. YouTube has hundreds of thousands of videos on how to do it. They’ve even created out-of-the-box hacking devices where all you have to do is plug in a WiFi Pineapple and begin hacking. Also, hackers will set up networks that look legitimate but are actually Evil Twins, so when you log into them, the hacker can see everything you are doing online.

The Harvard Business Review mentions that there’s a saying in the cybersecurity industry that there are three types of people in the world: those have been hacked, those who will be hacked, and those who are being hacked but just don’t know it yet.

Which one are you?

How to Protect Yourself

So how can you protect yourself from the dangers of public WiFi and hackers? Should you take the advice of the Harvard Business Review and just stop using public WiFi altogether?

Luckily, with a few simple steps, you can still enjoy public WiFi when you are on the go:

  • Turn off your mobile device’s WiFi connection when not in use: First, stop your smartphone from automatically connecting to public WiFi whenever it’s available, just in case it connects to a dodgy network.
  • Beware of Evil Twins: As we mentioned above, hackers will set up their own hotspots in busy areas, so always ask someone who works at the location for the connection details to make sure you’re connecting to a legitimate network.
  • Paid WiFi doesn’t mean safe WiFi: Just because you paid for WiFi access (such as on a plane or in an airport) doesn’t mean that it’s safe. In fact, nearly all public WiFi is completely open and completely insecure. Most of the security in public WiFi networks is built in to the payment system to safeguard your credit card. Beyond that, there’s no encryption to stop anyone from eavesdropping on your communications.
  • Change your passwords frequently: If you are like most people, you probably use the same password for all of your online accounts. If you are accessing any websites on a public WiFi networks which are accessible via a password (such as Gmail, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc.), these can be easily be stolen out of thin air. So make sure you use complex passwords and change them at least once every six months.
  • Use a VPN: Finally, buy a VPN and use it on all your devices!

Why You Really Need a VPN

If you want to completely protect your data, use a VPN (Virtual Private Network) whenever you connect to a WiFi network on any device. A VPN is software that secures and privatizes data across the Internet by building an “encrypted tunnel.” When you access the Internet, your data passes through this tunnel which protects it from anyone who tries to intercept it.

A VPN like Private WiFi is the best protection you can use if you’re going to use public WiFi on any of your devices.

The Harvard Business Review says that you need to stop using public WiFi. We want to amend that a little bit: stop using public WiFi unless you’re using a VPN like Private WiFi! With Private WiFi, you can have peace of mind knowing that your data is always totally secure.

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Jared Howe

Jared Howe is PRIVATE WiFi’s Senior Manager, Product Marketing Communications. Working in high tech for over 15 years, Jared currently lives in Seattle with his wife, daughter, and their two cats.