Health IS Technology Blog

Public WiFi: What You Need to Know Before Connecting


A free wifi sign disguising a mouse trap for hackers

Imagine taking a pitstop during your morning commute to grab a latte at a random coffee shop. You get a text from your boss, and he needs those spreadsheets within the hour, but it’s no problem, you’re practically done. You open your laptop ready to go, but when trying to find a hotspot to connect to in order to email that spreadsheet, you notice that there isn’t any public Wi-Fi network available. When you ask the barista, he just shrugs his shoulder and says, “Sorry, there’s no public Wi-Fi here.” Now, you’re running through the local streets with an open laptop, trying to get any available hotspot that’s free.

Why Would You Use Public Wi-Fi? 

Public Wi-Fi is a great convenience as well as an absolute necessity especially for those who have devices such as laptops and iPads that do not use cellular data for network connectivity. It’s also useful for those with mobile devices and smartphones that do not want to increase their cellular data usage especially if you are almost at your limit. 

There are a number of great reasons in using a free public Wi-Fi:

Better availability than cellular – With the increase of mobile device users, more and more restaurants, airports, and hotels are providing free public Wi-Fi. Sometimes the Wi-Fi signal provided is greater than your cellular signal in that location and makes more sense to use the free Wi-Fi for better network speeds.

Increases productivity - Often coffee shops, bookstores, and local eateries are trendy places where people gather to either socialize or do work. Areas like these promote productivity and collaboration in a comfortable setting. Imagine working on a presentation, sitting on a couch in an upscale hotel lobby that overlooks the beach. It’s awe-inspiring and beats a cubicle any day. Side Note: If you’reinterested in the best study/work areas around campus, read this article.

It’s free - The greatest reason to use public Wi-Fi is that it’s free. Why not? It can save you money on your monthly data charges. Public Wi-Fi networks are great for those on a tight budget like students. Technology has changed the way students learn and work, and access to a free Wi-Fi has become an absolute necessity, almost as necessary as electricity and running water.

What are the Risks with Public Wi-Fi?

Although the advantages are self-evident, all users should be aware of the risks involved in connecting to a public Wi-Fi. Here are some to be aware of, as well as some good practices to keep yourself secure:

Hackers have the same access to Public Wi-Fi as you do

Just like any public place, public Wi-Fi areas can be a place for malicious hackers to set up shop in order to steal information from unsuspecting users. If you are just casually surfing the web, then you should be fine, but it’s better to take the necessary precautions. If you are emailing confidential information or shopping online or connecting to social media, a hacker intent on stealing your information can easily gain access to your data traffic.

Free and Public often means Open and Unencrypted

Most public Wi-Fi areas are “open networks”, which means that the traffic on these networks are not encrypted (unencrypted data is sent over plain text while encrypted data is sent with information encoded for security). You can tell that a network is not encrypted when you look at the list of networks to connect to on your device, and they don’t have a little lock symbol by their names. 

Examples of secure versus insecure wi-fi networks

Also, when you connect to unencrypted networks, they may open a separate unsecure webpage for you to connect through (like a "terms of use" page). Since the network is open and unencrypted, anyone within range of the network can view your internet traffic using the proper tools. Malicious hackers can set their Wi-Fi adapters on their laptop to “monitor”, thus capturing all Wi-Fi network traffic - a technique called “sniffing” or “snooping”. Once they capture the unencrypted data, they can then analyze it in their leisure for passwords or credit card numbers. This may not happen frequently in smaller establishments, but for airports and big business hotspots, there’s a higher chance someone is connected somewhere with malicious intent. There aren’t any definitive statistics on this how often sniffing or snooping occurs, since it’s hard to track someone snooping on network traffic. You have to make the assumption that if it’s open, then there’s a high chance someone is doing this. I know it’s scary, but that’s the reality.

Fake Hotspots 

Even if you see the lock symbol on all the Wi-Fi networks available in your device’s list, you should still practice caution. For instance, let’s say you stop off at your favorite coffee shop BuckStars and pop open your laptop. You normally connect to “BuksW1” secured network (or hotspot), but then you notice that there’s a “BuckStars-WiFi” open network that has a stronger signal or even a “BuckStars-WiFi” secured network that uses the same password as the regular one, and you decide to connect to it. You just connected to a fake hotspot set up by a hacker nearby using his own wireless router. His fake hotspot acts as a middleman that allows traffic from your device to the real hotspot, but now all your information stream is captured by the hacker before it passes through to the internet. One way to avoid this is to actually ask someone who works at that establishment as to what the proper secured network for the business is. This takes the guesswork out of choosing what network to connect to.

Automatic connection and file sharing

Sometimes setting your device to automatically connect to a Wi-Fi network is convenient between work and home, but not recommended for when you are out at restaurants, airports, and hotels. With public Wi-Fi networks, you want to be able to go to your device’s list of available networks and manually choose, allowing you to make the better judgment of what network to connect to. Also, if your device allows file sharing at work or at home, you probably want to turn that off when you’re out and about (for Apple users, make sure AirDrop is set to “Contacts Only” or “Receiving Off”). Hackers can use file sharing to plant Malware or Trojans and direct browser traffic to false pages to gather information on unsuspecting users.

VPN & HTTPS 

When connecting to any website, make sure that you are always visiting a secured site (you should see HTTPS in the browser’s address field as well as a lock symbol - See photo below for reference).

Examples of secure sites versus unsecure sites on a browser

Data traffic between your device and such sites are always encrypted, adding a layer of security to your communication. If the site you have to visit does not have an HTTPS version, then browse only, but never submit any information on such sites. Also, when you’re not at work or at home, always use a VPN. I can’t emphasize this enough: always use a VPN (especially when you’re at BuckStars coffee shop). VPN stands for Virtual Private Network and is a service that allows you to access the web in a secure and private fashion.
Visualization of a secure VPN server protecting users from hackers

Once a connection is created using a VPN client, all traffic is encrypted (information is encoded). It provides a safe and secure connection even if you chose the open unsecure Wi-Fi network. Being a student, a staff member, or a faculty member at USF has great advantages. USF IT has provided a free VPN to all those who belong to the University. As long as you have a NetId, you can connect to VPN.USF.EDU and install the necessary VPN client software (or follow the provided instructions to get a VPN client for your mobile device). If you’re not part of our great University, then there are free and paid VPN services. Keep in mind that you should do your research regarding free VPN, since most will show advertisements and throttle down your connection speeds.

Public Wi-Fi is Convenient, But Be Diligent

Public Wi-Fi networks are a great convenience and at times an absolute necessity, but it’s important to use precautions such as connecting to only secured networks, choosing websites that are SSL enabled (HTTPS), and using a VPN to communicate securely. Keep in mind that following these steps will never absolutely guarantee that all will be well with your internet traffic. But these precautions, especially accessing a VPN, will make your network access much more secure. The goal is always to force hackers to move onto easier targets – and hopefully now that you know these easy tips on using public Wi-Fi, you will be a tougher target online!

USF Health Information Systems is a comprehensive technology group serving the needs of the Academic Research and Clinical missions. We partner with our customers to deliver agile responsive technology solutions that drive business value and make life better for our students and patients. Be informed at all times by visiting health.usf.edu/is/. You can connect directly via phone by calling (813) 974-6288 or by sending us an email via support@health.usf.edu, after hours.

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Bob Varghese
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Bob Varghese is a Technology and Systems Analyst for Information Technology at the University of South Florida.