Using public Wi-Fi is never a good idea in terms of cybersecurity.
But let’s face it: we all do it from time to time, either out of necessity or convenience.
If you’re aware of the risks, you probably turn on the VPN, or Virtual Private Network, to encrypt your traffic and protect your data while surfing through open Wi-Fi.
While this seems to be a good idea, many of the popular free VPNs are not what they’re advertised as.
In fact, using an unreliable VPN to browse the internet can cause more harm than good in the long run.
Why public Wi-Fi should be avoided
First of all, let’s remember of the perils of using public Wi-Fi in the first place.
To start with, there are plenty of so-called “honeypot networks” out there.
Those are illegitimate Wi-Fi access points set up by hackers to access your information: particularly passwords, credit card details, and bank details.
If you connect to one of those fake networks, all your information will be accessible to third parties and likely used against you.
But even if you connect to a safe source, say your local Starbucks’ Wi-Fi, open Wi-Fi networks are generally unencrypted.
This means that anyone sitting in the same café could be using tools like Firesheep to snoop on your browsing activity and steal your passwords or other sensitive information.
Free VPN is not the answer
Free VPN is not that different from free Wi-Fi in that it can also be used as a cover for secret malicious activity.
In fact, research done by Top10VPN revealed that 18% of the free VPN apps for Android tested positive for viruses and malware.
So, when you’re downloading an unreliable VPN, you actually put yourself at extra risk of your data being compromised.
Another study found that some VPNs don’t even successfully encrypt your traffic, defeating the purpose of having a VPN in the first place.
This means that while you’re browsing the internet with a false sense of security, your traffic information might be as accessible to third parties as ever.
What happens when the VPN fails
Let’s assume the VPN you’re currently using is one of those faulty networks that don’t sufficiently protect you online.
What threats are you under when connecting to an open Wi-Fi unshielded?
Most importantly, insecure networks can subject you to man-in-the-middle attacks.
Man-in-the-middle refers to a situation when a malicious third party tricks your computer and the server into thinking they’re communicating directly with each other, when in fact the attacker is intercepting the traffic.
They can access your passwords, see the websites you visit and read unencrypted forms you fill out online.
In other words, they know everything you’re doing on the web.
If your VPN is working properly, the hacker who managed a successful man-in-the-middle attack on your device will only receive strongly encrypted data.
While the decryption process is technically possible, most cyber criminals are after an easy win, so they would most likely discard your data.
Stay safe on public Wi-Fi
The best tip for staying safe while using free Wi-Fi is, well, not to use it.
If possible, tether to your smartphone for mobile data or use a mobile hotspot instead of connecting to third-party networks.
Understandably though, these options are not always on the table.
If you really need to use open Wi-Fi, make sure you stick to HTTPS websites.
HTTPS encrypts the traffic between you and the site you’re visiting, protecting you from man-in-the-middle attacks.
While using HTTPS sites doesn’t guarantee that you will never fall prey to a cyber-attack, it’s certainly a good practice.
And finally, get rid of that dodgy free VPN and opt for a trustworthy provider to keep you safe next time you connect through a public Wi-Fi.
Remember to do your research before you download a VPN app and forget about using free software – your cybersecurity is worth the investment.