Free Wifi Hotspots - A Big Risk?

Category: Wireless

It's convenient when coffee shops, bookstores, airports, hotels, and other public places provide free access to wireless Internet hotspots. But along with that convenience comes the danger of being digitally mugged. Here are some some simple tips you can use to make sure you're not broadcasting your business to snoops and hackers while using wifi hotspots...

Understanding Wifi Security Risks

While you're sipping that latte and working on a business plan, someone at the next table, or in a car outside, may be stealing sensitive data from your laptop or smartphone through the same wireless hotspot you are using. As you browse your email, someone nearby may be reading along with you. And you may never know your digital pocket has been picked. This is why it's important to understand wireless hotspot security and use it wisely.

Unsecured wireless networks are convenient - you don't have to enter a password, just fire up your laptop, tablet, or smartphone and let it connect to the wide-open wireless network. But anyone within range of that network can do the same, and without an encrypted connection you may be vulnerable to data theft.


It's a good idea to enable the firewall built into your laptop, even when using secured hotspots. A personal firewall can protect your data against other hotspot users. If you are connecting via wifi on a Windows computer, choose the "Public" option when asked what type of network you're on.

I also recommend that you disable file and printer sharing on your laptop before going out in public with it. Whatever data you allow to be shared on a network is available to other users of a wireless hotspot.

Extra Layers of Wifi Security

A few years ago, I met with a group of Internet professionals, all of us sporting laptops with wireless connections to the hotel's access point. On the second day of the conference, one of the attendees put up a slide showing logins and passwords from a dozen of the other attendees. Needless to say, many jaws dropped open! He was running a "wifi sniffer" to spy on the internet traffic floating around in the air. Fortunately, he was a trusted colleague, and was nice enough to tell us that we were caught with our virtual pants down.

If you use any website that requires you to login with a username and password, or has a form where you must enter personal information, look for the "https" in the website address. As long as you're on a page with an address that begins with https, the data you send and receive is protected from sniffers and snoopers. That little "s" is your assurance that your connection is encrypted. It's becoming more common, but not all sites use it yet.

If you use Outlook, Thunderbird or another desktop email program, adjust your account settings to require a secure connection when sending or receiving mail. Check with your Internet provider for help setting up a secure email connection.

Your connection is almost always encrypted when using online banking, or making a purchase on the web. But other venues, such as online forums or your web-based email may NOT use an encrypted connection. Gmail, Yahoo Mail,, and Facebook are fully encrypted, so you're safe there.

What does all this mean? If you don't see HTTPS in the address bar of your browser, anything you read or post online, as well as any email you send or receive while using a public wifi connection may be exposed. If you enter a username and password on a website that doesn't offer HTTPS encryption, it's the equivalent to holding up a sign with your login credentials.

Remote Access and Other Wifi Security Tips

If your employer has a Virtual Private Network (VPN), use it for all communications when connecting via wifi. A VPN encrypts all data passing through it so that even if data is intercepted it cannot be read. If you're not on company business, consider a VPN service like Betternet, which has a free option and works on Windows, Mac, iOS and Android devices. The Opera browser also has a free VPN built in.

You can also use one of the free remote access services to protect your data against thieves. These tools let you connect to your home computer, and do your surfing through your own secure internet connection. Learn about the options in my related article Free Remote Access and Screen Sharing.

Consider disabling your device's WiFi adapter when it's not in use. This prevents your device from automatically connecting to any wireless hotspot you may pass. On smartphones, this will be found in the Settings dialog. Most laptops have a button or switch that makes enabling and disabling a WiFi adapter quick and easy. You'll also conserve battery power by turning off the WiFi when it's not needed.

It's worth noting that disabling wifi on your phone or tablet, and connecting instead with your device's mobile data will also keep you safe from the perils of public wifi. Similarly, if your smartphone has the capabbility to create a hotspot, you can connect to it from your laptop. You'll use some of your monthly data allotment, but you'll have peace of mind.

Oh, and of course there are the "shoulder surfers" to watch out for. Just like when you're entering your PIN code at an ATM, you need to keep an eye open for anyone who might be glancing over your shoulder while you hunt and peck in public. I always use two fingers when entering my pin or password... one presses the correct key and other is a decoy. So even if someone was watching from across the street with binoculars, it's almost impossible to steal a password.

Wireless hotspots are essential these days. But just as you wouldn't sit in a cafe with your wallet open on the table, you shouldn't leave your laptop or other mobile device wide open to thieves. If you must use public wifi in an airport, coffee shop, or hotel room, awareness and encryption are paramount. If the web address displayed by your browser starts with HTTPS, you're safe. If not, and you're not using a VPN or remote access service, everything is potentially exposed to hackers or snoops in the vicinity.

Do you have something to say about wifi hotspot security? Post your comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "Free Wifi Hotspots - A Big Risk?"

Posted by:

Frank McCarthy
27 Sep 2019

What do you think about Firefox Private Network?

Posted by:

27 Sep 2019

It's has gotten to the point where if I am staying at a hotel with open wi-fi,chances are I will not use the system.Unless that system uses WFA2 protection or higher,I will consider the access risky and not worth using.

I understand there is a new wi-fi standard coming that will offer more protection than WFA2.Hotel associations should consider this and push their members to improve their wi-fi access.

Posted by:

Kenneth Mitchell
27 Sep 2019

I never, ever, EVER use a public WiFi hotspot. I have a smartphone with WiFi tethering and an unlimited data plan, so I never need to.

Posted by:

28 Sep 2019

I wish there were an app that you could open that would automatically secure your phone or tablet or laptop for you when you’re using public WiFi .

Why isn’t there?

At least, then, I could use it worry free.

Posted by:

28 Sep 2019

I wish there were an app that would automatically secure my phone or laptop or tablet while using public Wi-Fi.

Why isn’t there?

Posted by:

29 Sep 2019

I thought I'd pass along some info pertaining to The Betternet VPN service...

Posted by:

John Koeller
30 Sep 2019

WHY even carry sensitive data on your smart phone or laptop? That's as stupid as the women who carry their purse into the supermarket and then LEAVE IT IN THE CART while they walk away to shop.....and then it gets stolen!! I have NO banking or other important personal or business information on my phone or laptop. That way I can feel more comfortable using a public wifi spot. If I absolutely must carry important data with me, I'll keep it on a separate SD card in my pocket, only accessed under the most secure conditions. Don't enable a 'purse-snatcher'!!!

Posted by:

Bill Pfeifer
07 Jan 2020

I'm ignorant about mail protocols. My phone says that email arrives via, and goes out via
There's no "https" there. Are these secure connections? Could someone pick up the automatically sent logins and/or passwords for these connections?

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