Using public Wi-Fi networks

Free and convenient access to the internet may put you at risk

Public Wi-Fi networks–also known as Wi-Fi hotspots–can be found nearly everywhere. In fact, we’ve come to expect them at most public spaces, such as airports, hotels, schools and restaurants.

While these hotspots offer free and convenient access to the internet, there are risks involved. Public networks allow people to join anonymously, which is an ideal environment for hackers looking to steal information and money or transmit and install malware. Similarly, other network users may be able to monitor your activity and view anything that appears on your device’s screen.

The Office of Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson shares the following tips to keep public Wi-Fi users informed and protected from cyber threats.

  • Use the most secure network available
    If you must use a public Wi-Fi network, choose the most secure. Common secure network types include WEP, WPA and WPA2 (the strongest). Never assume a network is secure–ask an employee to verify. Also remember that secure networks offer more protection, but are not a guarantee that your device and information will be safe from other network users.
  • Use encrypted websites
    You should avoid sending personal information through a website when on a public network, but if you must, be sure the site is encrypted. Look for web addresses that begin with “https,” as the ‘s’ means secure. Encryption converts information to jumbled code during transmission, making it harder for other network users to decipher.
  • Protect your device
    Make sure your computer’s operating system and security software is up to date. Keep your firewall updated and turned on, and consider installing additional anti-spyware/anti-malware software. Turn off file sharing on your computer when on a public network, and you may want to consider using a virtual private network, or VPN, which encrypts information between your device and the internet. If you are using your device but not accessing the internet, disable your wireless connection or put your phone in airplane mode.
  • Avoid sharing sensitive information on mobile apps
    Unfortunately, mobile apps are not always encrypted, or may be encrypted incorrectly. It’s best to avoid using apps for sharing sensitive information on public Wi-Fi networks altogether. Try using a company’s encrypted website, rather than the app, on a secure network. If you must use an app, only use secure Wi-Fi networks or 3G or 4G networks.

Attorney General Swanson’s office has additional resources about identity theft, phishing, internet safety, and what to do if your account is hacked. You can also check out OnGuard Online, a federal agency partnership maintained by the Federal Communications Commission and Federal Trade Commission. OnGuard Online provides free security tips and resources for educators and parents, including practical information about discussing online safety with children and teenagers.

When using a public Wi-Fi network, almost everything on your device is at risk: user names, passwords, email addresses, credit card and bank account information, and more. Skilled hackers can gain access to this information if you don’t take steps to protect yourself and your device.