Public Wi-Fi networks – are they more secure than 10 years ago?

Wireless Internet is said to be coming of age this year, turning a starry-eyed 18 in September – a full-blooded millennial. While this youngster has been around for almost two decades, it appears that public Wi-Fi networks are still as insecure as they were at the beginning.

By definition, public Wi-Fi implies that a wide audience should be able to access it, which tells us security has to be compromised on some level. Using Wi-Fi means data travels via radio waves to a router, and anyone equipped with the right tools and know-how can effortlessly intercept this information.

Public Wi-Fi hotspots are dotting our cities and world today – much more so than 10 years ago. Moreover, the mobile revolution has opened the door for us to work, shop, bank, chat and connect with friends online almost anywhere we want to – from mountaintops to outstretched beaches, depending on Wi-Fi availability of course.

While our world has been broadened beyond imagination over the last decade or two, these developments are also leaving us significantly more vulnerable to cybercrime and data theft. Let’s be honest, who would’ve fathomed worrying about smartphone security 20 years ago?

In South Africa, where cybercrime is as much on the rise as in other parts of the world, it has reportedly been predicted that Wi-Fi connections (both creating and accessing them) would simply mushroom between 2014 and 2019. Recent substantial increases in open Wi-Fi connections in Johannesburg, Tshwane and Cape Town clearly signal this swell.

Africa – a continent driven by mobility and a healthy appetite for data – is seeing progressively more Wi-Fi being set up in cities and metro areas than before, as Wi-Fi is said to offer an ideal opportunity to support mobile operators and better their networks.

If you enjoy surfing the Net for free while sipping your latte at a coffee shop, the shopping mall, airport or in a hotel lobby, you’re not alone. According to Norton’s Wi-Fi Risk Report, released in June last year, 86% of people globally use public Wi-Fi, while 81% have shared information in this way.

Logging into their personal email accounts tops the list of activities performed over public Wi-Fi (55%), followed by logging into social media accounts (54%) and sharing photos or videos (38%). The report says 24% log into their work email accounts, while 15% send work documents.

Somewhat alarming is that 20% of people regard public Wi-Fi hotspots “secure” enough to check or access bank or financial information. The reality is they aren’t.

As much of the information sent over the Internet connection is unencrypted, hackers can easily eavesdrop and try to pocket your passwords, personal details and other sensitive data. Your device is also at risk of being infiltrated and infected. Most free Wi-Fi users have no clue of exactly how exposed they are.

How can I surf safely in public?

The best solution: get to know the pitfalls and work around them. The responsibility of protecting your data still very much lies with you. When surfing in public:

• Turn off “Sharing”
• Enable Firewall
• Ditch Bluetooth
• Have anti-virus software on your device
• Don’t join Wi-Fi networks you don’t know anything about
• Opt for HTTPS and other encrypted channels
• Never ever do online banking
• Use a VPN (Virtual Private Network)
• When you’re done browsing, disable Wi-Fi
• Rather use mobile data

While there are encryption mechanisms, these could be complex, cumbersome and tricky to understand. If you need assistance in managing and securing your mobile device, contact us at Evolv Networks.

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