The Problem With Free Wifi Hotspots

Category: Wireless

Coffee shops, restaurants, bookstores, airports, hotels, and other public places often provide free access to wireless Internet hotspots. But along with the freedom to move around while computing 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 through the same wireless hotspot you are using. As you browse your email, someone nearby may be reading along with you. As you walk down the street, your smartphone may automatically connect to a rogue hotspot run by identity thieves, allowing them an opportunity to steal passwords and other data. You may never know your 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. Whenever possible, use wireless hotspots that at least require a password.


It's also 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 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 webmail, or any other website that requires a login password, 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. 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. Be aware that some sites offer a secure login page, but after you're logged in, they revert to non-encrypted mode! (For mobile users, the Gmail app on Android smartphones and tablets is secure, as is the Mail app on Apple iPhone/iPad.)

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 on 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, use one of the free remote access services to protect your data against thieves. You can use these tools to 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.

Oh, and 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. 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, 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 Problem With Free Wifi Hotspots"

Posted by:

Renaud Olgiati
15 Aug 2014

I am surprised you do not mention the possibility of using a live USB (like Tails Linux if you are really paranoid) when having to use a public WiFi hot-spot.

Posted by:

15 Aug 2014

Bob, I use a program on my laptop called "Private Wifi" when traveling, which supposedly encrypts everything. It's free to me through AOL, but it is available for a monthly subscription as well, I believe. Do you know anything about this program as to its reliability? It seems to work pretty well, but of course I have no way of knowing if it has actually stopped any threats I might have encountered. Occasionally, in the past, I had internet access problems when it was activated but this year it seemed to work without any issues.

Posted by:

Brian S.
15 Aug 2014

Bob, wasn't the Heartbleed bug found to circumvent the HTTPS protocol? According to Wikipedia, Bloomberg News knew of two insider sources that said the NSA knew about the vulnerability and failed to disclose it to the public so they could exploit it for themselves. The NSA has, of course, denied this saying that they knew nothing about it prior to its public disclosure on 4-07-14. I find that hard to believe since the NSA has the resources and hires the most brilliant cyber-hackers that our tax money can provide in order to fulfill their mission to spy on everyone and "protect" the public.

Posted by:

15 Aug 2014

A useful reminder, thanks Bob.

I use Steganos on line security when I use public wifi to do anything other than check a website. So far so good. There is a free version with a limited amount of data and a paid version for unlimited.

Hope this helps.

Posted by:

15 Aug 2014

Turning off your device WIfI also saves battery power ... so should be a habit on that phone that is only as smart as the user.

Posted by:

Stuart Berg
15 Aug 2014

I'm surprised you didn't mention EMET ( and Trusteer ( I believe both of these help protect you on open WiFi networks.

Posted by:

15 Aug 2014

I loaded the 'Steganos Online Shield' app on my phone a while back; it provides a VPN connection to use when connection to a non-secure WiFi. It scans for available WiFi and lets u pick one.
I haven't actually *used* it however, simply haven't had the opportunity, but it does seem promising.

Posted by:

15 Aug 2014

Hi Bob, Informative article. An issue I am running into is that Starbuck's wifi won't let me use Chrome Remote Desktop to access my computer at home. Not sure if it effects other remote desktop solutions but, since I am trying out a Chromebook in the field, it would be nice to find a way to get to my home computers that works with Windows, Linux and Chromebooks. Thanks for all you do!!

Posted by:

Sandy Papavasiliou
16 Aug 2014

Yes Bob. I do what you do at an ATM. I use more than one finger and float my hand over the keyboard so anybody watching would get confused.

Posted by:

27 Aug 2014

" On the second day of the conference, 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! He was running a "wifi sniffer" to spy on the internet traffic floating around in the air."
Am I interpreting this correctly as meaning that no matter how strong one's email password is, it won't protect the account against this sort of hijack?
When I looked for information about email security on the web, basically the only advice given is to have a strong password. Then when I looked at my email client's server security settings (I use Thunderbird), I ran into terms like STARTTLS and SSL/TLS and anyway came away with the conclusion that even if Thunderbird gave good options they would all come to naught if my ISP wouldn't play along.
I would greatly appreciate some more enlightenment.

Posted by:

24 Feb 2015

When traveling I use a travel router from D-Link. It sits between my laptop or other device and the hotel wireless/wire connection. It is set up with WPA personal. Works well.

Posted by:

03 Sep 2015

the wifi provided by our employer disconnects when moving through building,even though still in range. any tips

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