I was asked a couple of weeks ago how safe public WiFi hotspots were. At the time, the best answer was, “it depends, you gotta put it into context.” Having thought about this on and off since then, my answer is still largely the same.
By their very nature, public WiFi hotspots are public. They're available for anybody to use providing they have the access and they're typically unencrypted. In simple terms, an unencrypted WiFi network means that anything your device sends or receives is readily readable to any device that can intercept the signal.
And not all hackers are teenage boys in their bedrooms late at night. One might be sitting next to you at your coffee shop using his or her smartphone.
I'm not going to write about the technologies that may be used to encrypt or secure websites, email or Internet traffic on our devices because it doesn't add anything meaningful to the discussion. There are technologies in place to keep our data private but for most people, these are only as secure as we are. If I mouth my PIN when I feed it into the ATM and my wallet gets stolen, there's a good chance that my account will be emptied quicker than I can say, “cheesecake.” Luckily, people tend to be sensible but as more and more public WiFi hotspots pop up, so it's tempting to be online anywhere.
A public hotspot's name may be spoofed by somebody with malicious intent. Ever been to a coffee shop chain and your device hasn't connected, but when you looked in the WiFi settings you saw what looked like the right network? Were you tempted to tap on it to connect? It might be a forged WiFi network and you might be connecting to a hacker's laptop and giving them access to your device.
It's an extreme example but it can and does happen.
Instead, my recommendation is that you treat public WiFi as you might a conversation. You see, anything you say or do in a public place may be overheard or recorded by anybody around you. And so I'd recommend you treat a public WiFi hotspot in the same way: anything you say or do online using that WiFi network could be seen or recorded by anybody else close enough.
And just as in my local coffee shop, speaking to friends in broad Scottish helps disguise what I'm saying, I never know when the girl sitting behind me is from Glasgow. Or maybe she's just recording what I'm saying to decipher it later?
I'm not paranoid nor do I wear an armadillo on my head. I'm not trying to scare my readers, but instead a little bit of caution goes a long way.