The Hidden Risks of Free Wifi Hotspots

Category: Privacy , Wireless

I remember when the Reader's Digest had a feature called “Your Slip is Showing”. It had nothing to do with women's clothing, but rather how we are sometimes unaware of certain mistakes until someone points them out. If you connect your phone, tablet or laptop to a free wifi hotspot, you need to know how you might be exposed. Read on for my tips...

Understanding Wifi Security Risks

A few years ago, I met with a group of savvy Internet entrepreneurs, all of us sporting laptops connected to the hotel's wifi. One of those present 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...

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 slips showing, or rather, 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
the PC Matic VPN for Windows or Mac computers. It's a US-based service that protects you while using public wifi, with no logging or tracking of your online activities. There are some free VPN services but they tend to be very slow or 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 "The Hidden Risks of Free Wifi Hotspots"

Posted by:

27 Jun 2023

Thanks for the great article Bob, we can never be reminded too often.

The PC Matic mentioned in this article is new. Any comments from anyone using it? Good, bad, indifferent, you stopped using it (why)?

Hopefully Bob will let us know his thoughts.

Posted by:

Newbie Dave
27 Jun 2023

Total newbie here. I often use google chrome to populate my login/passwords on various sites I visit often. It shows up as asterisks so no one can visually see it, but I have no idea if someone can snoop digitally and grab it. Can anyone share if they know if this is safe on a public site? If yes, is there a time it is NOT safe? TIA

Posted by:

27 Jun 2023

Newbie Dave.

I am no expert but I do trust Bob Rankin.

I believe that if you follow ALL Bob's recommendations for using free wi-fi hotspots you would be safe, including your passwords, if you have those passwords you saved to your browser behind a master password. That is imperative if you want to keep them safe, at home or away from home.

Posted by:

Hugh Gautier
28 Jun 2023

You've done a fine job warning folks about the hidden secrets of FREE Hot Spots. Now for my hidden gem, my Nokia 4G phone doesn't allow the internet of any kind. Not even SMS text messages as a buddy said yesterday MMS and the phone barfed at that too. I had to call him and remind him that no internet meant exactly that. The good side of that is that my phone bill is $35.79 a month, which is gr8 on a Social Security income of $1.1K which is to pay all of my bills.

Posted by:

28 Jun 2023

Not to be paranoid, but keep in mind that security cameras are everywhere, and they might also be used to snoop over your shoulder.

Posted by:

28 Jun 2023

Firefox can be set to tell you when you want to connect to a site that doesn't use "https". The only trouble is that they are often wrong. Most of the ones they tell me about turn out to be using it. The result is like the boy who cried wolf and it' exasperating.

Posted by:

02 Jul 2023

Re Frances' post: I see this also and what I think is that Firefox is detecting a non-secure short-cut link pointing to the eventual secure target web site. That's a guess, but it's mine so it must be right. ha ha

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