Free Wifi Hotspots - Are They Risky?

Category: Wireless

A few years ago, I met with a group of Internet professionals, all of us sporting laptops connected to the hotel's wifi. One of the attendees put up a slide showing logins and passwords from a dozen of the attendees. Needless to say, many jaws dropped open! 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

It's convenient when public places such as coffee shops, bookstores, airports and hotels provide free access to wireless Internet hotspots. But along with that convenience comes the danger of being digitally mugged.

Did you know that while you're sipping that pumpkin spice latte, someone at the next table, or even 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 – sometimes you don't even 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

As I mentioned in the opening of this article, I and some of my tech-savvy friends were shocked that our wireless Internet connection was so exposed. Our colleague was running a "wifi sniffer" that could spy on the internet traffic floating around in the air. Fortunately, he was a trusted friend, 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. Even on free public wifi. 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 online venues may NOT use an encrypted connection. Gmail, Yahoo Mail,, and Facebook are fully encrypted, so you're safe from wifi sniffers 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 at Starbucks 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 one of the VPN services listed on this VPN review page. Most offer a free trial option and have versions for Windows, Mac, iOS and Android devices. (Free VPN services tend to be very slow anf flaky.)

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 Screen Sharing and Remote Access Tools.

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, or by swiping down from the top of the screen. 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 capability 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 low-tech "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 my 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 - Are They Risky?"

Posted by:

04 Oct 2021

The VPN provided free in Opera works well. Usually near the performance of unencrypted access; but, occasionally a website will be slower. I usually turn off the VPN temporarily and the switch it back on once the page fills up. That takes care of most problems.

Posted by:

David Serfass
04 Oct 2021

People can also 'spoof' a WIFI that mimics those around you. That person sitting two tables over with a laptop may be doing just that! Be safe!

Posted by:

Bob K
04 Oct 2021

Don't forget the browser TOR! It's free, and constantly being updated. With it, your browser (which is a version of Firefox) is running in a 'sandbox' mode, where programs, cookies, etc can't be installed on your computer, and everything between your computer on outward is encrypted.

Additionally, your traffic is routed thru a global network of servers, so the IP address presented to the site you are visiting has no relation to yours.

Occasionally you will hit a site that doesn't like the country they think you are in, and all you have to do is hit the 'new identity' and end up somewhere else.

Posted by:

Ken H
04 Oct 2021

In my browser (Vivaldi) this page shows no https until I copy and paste the URL into a word processor program of some sort. Just so you all know.

Posted by:

bob K
04 Oct 2021

For Ken H:

With Vivaldi, there will be a little padlock icon just before the address you are going to, if the site is secure. If it isn't secure, then that padlock is replaced with "Not Secure".

Posted by:

04 Oct 2021

It might be a good idea when you are traveling to make sure your laptop does not connect automatically with any wi-fi point your machine might come across.You will have to go into your wi-fi settings to do this,but I think this will be worth it.

You may think you are connected with the hotel wi-fi connection you found earlier,but it could be another nearby connection that took advantage of your inattention.

Whatever happened to the wired internet connections you would find at any hotel even a few years ago? I think it is time to go back to wired connections as they provide more security and you don't have to worry about hotspot activity.

Posted by:

04 Oct 2021

I am not certain if this Firefox add-on has a placebo effect or if it may work >> "Smart HTTPS is a Firefox extension that helps you always use the secure HTTPS protocol, if supported by the site’s server. It automatically changes HTTP protocol to the secure HTTPS, and if loading errors occur, the extension will revert back to the original HTTP protocol."

Posted by:

05 Oct 2021

@RandiO Chrome browsers also have an extension called "HTTPS Everywhere" which attempts an HTTPS connection, and the chrome-based browsers Brave and Vivaldi have it baked in.

Posted by:

10 Oct 2021

Both Vivaldi and Opera display the padlock on the address line as they do not show the http preamble by default - but they do try to use an encrypted connection where possible. Opera also uses a VPN by default...

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