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Is free public Wi-Fi really free?

Updated: Jul 10, 2023

Using public Wi-Fi presents a wide range of cyber security risks to those that use it, this is often down to security on these networks being non-existent or very poor. Free Wi-Fi is now available in many places such as restaurants, hotels, airports, bookstores, and retail stores/centres.

However, the reasons why free Wi-Fi is appealing for you is also the reason it is appealing to hackers. The main reason that hackers target public and free Wi-Fi points is because there is nothing that stops them from connecting to the network, so they can steal the information you are sharing whilst on the network. This is the equivalent to a burglar not needing a key to walk through your front door and steal from your home

Hackers do this by positioning themselves between your device (so your phone, tablet or laptop) and once they have done this, they are able to intercept the information you are sharing. So, picture this… you’re working away sending emails to those within and outside of your organisation and whilst doing this, a hacker has been given access to everything you’re sending out on the internet. This includes important emails, credit card information, passwords, and other login credentials.

This information is then collected up by the hacker, where they can then use the data to access your systems pretending to be you. Often, this information is also sold on to other cybercriminals who will then be able to use this information to do things like compromise other accounts you use, such as your social media accounts or trick you into a phishing attack.

What is a Phishing? Phishing is when attackers attempt to trick users into doing 'the wrong thing', such as clicking a bad link that will download dangerous software onto your device or direct them to a dodgy website. Phishing can be conducted via a text message, social media, or by phone, but the term 'phishing' is mainly used to describe attacks that arrive by email.

Whilst using public Wi-Fi is risky, there are some simple steps you can take so you can use it safely.

  • Use a Virtual Private Network (VPN) to stop hackers seeing the data that you send across the internet when using a public Wi-Fi source.

  • Turn off sharing on your device when connecting to a Wi-Fi source, go to the system preferences (OS device) or Control Panel (on your Windows device) and choose the "Public" option the first time you connect to a new, unsecured network.

  • Avoid accessing websites that hold your sensitive information, such as such as financial, healthcare, or social media accounts.

  • Update all software across all devices, from the operating system to your smartphone and desktop apps, as they almost always include crucial security updates.

  • Use strong and separate passwords for all clients, systems, and software.

  • Turn on two-factor authentication where possible for every system and device used.

  • Install an antivirus or an anti-malware product on all devices that support it and set regular scans to run automatically.

  • Where possible use the data on your phone instead of wi-fi and if you don’t need to connect to the internet, stay off it if you can.

Take the next step to protect yourself and your business

To help outsmart cyber criminals and toughen up their cyber security, The South East Cyber Resilience Centre (SECRC), has been established to provide businesses and organisations, with an affordable way to access cyber security services and consultancy to help improve cyber resilience.

Businesses and charities in the South East can sign up for free Core Membership online and receive a welcome pack full of practical resources and tools that will help you identify your risks and vulnerabilities and the steps you can take to increase your levels of protection. Through your membership, you will also get regular updates on new threats, designed to help you stay safer.


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