Let’s start with the opening sentences from a column in USA Today:
“I don’t really need to worry about online privacy,” I used to think. “I’ve got nothing to hide. And who would want to know what I’m up to, anyway?”
So begins the tale of a technology journalist who wrote an article on a plane then was approached by a stranger when he got off. The stranger knew what the journalist had been writing because he had hacked into the plane’s Wi-Fi and could see everything that the other connected passengers were typing.
Many of you have heard the warnings about using public Wi-Fi, but you’re still using it without taking precautions. I totally understand. I do it sometimes, too [I’m wearing a face of shame]. It’s easy. It’s fast. It looks official. Where’s the danger?
Why Is Public Wi-Fi Dangerous?
When you connect to Wi-Fi, you’re sending data to and from the router. The organization that set up the router may have taken extra steps to increase safety, but many don’t. And even if they do, hackers know ways around it. Because you’re opening up your data and connections, hackers can do a number of things to mess up your world.
Another reason public Wi-Fi is dangerous is that hackers create spoof Wi-Fi names that look like the official connection. So you may see “Grinds Coffee” and “Grinds Coffee WiFi” in the available networks list. It’s hard to know which is safe.
What Are Wi-Fi Hackers Trying to Do?
Hackers’ biggest motivation for getting access to your machine is to steal your identity and your money. And if that happens to you, it’s a total nightmare to get everything straightened out.
What Can Hackers Do when They Get Access?
- See what you’re typing
Hackers may be able to see any plain text you’re typing, including logins, emails, images, private documents, etc. They can use this kind of info to steal your identity, expose private information, hack your accounts, steal your credit card and bank info and all kinds of nasty stuff. “But I don’t have anything worth taking, really,” you might say. But they don’t care. They’re digging around to see what they can get, hacking as many people as they can until they find useful stuff to help them be bad people.
- Install malware, viruses and ransomware
Hackers want to put programs on your devices for all kinds of reasons. They install keyloggers to capture passwords and private information. They infect your machine with tools that let them use your computer as a host for attacks on websites and networks in what they call a Denial of Service (DoS) or Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack. That’s where a hacker will send a kazillion inquiries or hits to a system at once, causing complete overload and meltdown. And you probably won’t know that your device is part of the mayhem.
Hackers can also use this vulnerability to install ransomware, which locks down all your files until you pay a ransom. This has taken down small businesses, hospitals, governments and lots of normal people.
What Won’t Protect You from Hackers
Some people say, “I’m careful because I never logon to banking sites or whatever when I’m on public Wi-Fi.” Sorry, folks. This is not good enough. You’re still probably logging into social media sites, email and more, and hackers can get those passwords. And many (many) of us reuse the same username/password combos…. yeah. You know. Plus, it’s a mess if a hacker gets control of your social media.
What Will Protect You from Hackers
- Using your own data
Data plans are expensive. I know that. But it’s worth it if you need to use Wi-Fi outside of your own network regularly. I have an unlimited plan on multiple devices, so most of the time I can use my hotspot in hotels, airports and restaurants.
- Using a VPN
A Virtual Private Network (VPN) routes your data through a safe tunnel rather than the open channels. Although there are a few reputable free VPNs, you have to be very careful because bad guys create free VPNs to have full access. Go with one that has been vetted by reputable tech sites. I have Windscribe installed, and sometimes I’m lazy about using it [face of shame]. Windscribe has a free level that limits the GB of surfing per month.
- Other security advice
This article covers a number of other settings and techniques to keep your surfing more secure, but the two techniques above are the best ideas.