6 Reasons why you need to be careful when using free public internet

It's a common way to spend your afternoon: a cup of coffee and a sandwich in a café while you leisurely browse the web. Well, it used to be before coronavirus, anyway. Eventually, we'll get back to enjoying life like that. But, when we do, there are certain threats that come with using the internet in public places. And we want you to know how to stay safe.

6 Reasons why you need to be careful when using free public internet
A Public Wi-Fi Label Outside a Cafe

You’ve probably heard of VPN technology. You may use it from time to time, or you may have no idea what it is. Well, we’re here to clear it up for you. One of the main functions of a VPN is concealing an IP address. You could understand why you may want to do that at home, but you also may want to hide it when you use free public internet.

There’s no travel right now, of course, due to COVID-19, but you can use this time to plan your next trip to Australia. You probably wouldn’t think about buying a local SIM card. When you arrive, you may decide to use roaming on your phone for urgent calls. And if you need to Skype or check emails, you can hit up the nearest café with free Wi-Fi. If you do this, you’ll want a device from to protect your information.

You might think that it doesn’t matter whether you stop at Starbucks, McDonald’s, or a local coffee shop to catch up on social media. Just remember that public networks aren’t safe unless you take necessary precautions. Here are some reasons why it’s not safe to browse without a VPN as well as ways you can protect yourself.

Free Wi-Fi Public Hotspot

Free WiFi Public Hotspot

Why you shouldn’t connect to a free public hotspot

Here are six crucial reasons that using free public internet isn’t safe. Hopefully, this will remind you to take protective measures if you have to use public Wi-Fi when you travel.

1. It may collect your data.

When you use public internet, it’s likely that the sites you visit will be stored somewhere. It’s possible this data is used for marketing analysis. They want to know your preferences to better advertise to customers. That’s one of the best-case scenarios.

However, the worst-case scenario is when someone uses this data to get private information about you. They may even sell it to third-party buyers that could use it for illegal activity. Yea, you don’t want any part of that.

Thankfully, you can avoid this by simply installing a VPN app on your mobile device. Then you just subscribe to a certain billing schedule and make sure it’s on before you connect to a public hotspot.

2. It doesn’t ensure anonymity.

We know you want your internet activity to stay private. You’re probably not doing anything unmentionable in Starbucks, but nobody needs to know how long you scrolled Facebook, either. And you definitely don’t want anyone reading your private emails or seeing your bank transfers.

Well, if you need to exchange data over a torrent resource, your information could become vulnerable. That’s why you should . Block those curious people out of your private matters to avoid potential trouble.

A person working in a public cafe.

A person working in a public cafe.

3. It can allow malicious attacks.

We’re not saying the café owner has any knowledge that their internet connection isn’t safe. But any spot where a bunch of people are browsing the internet will attract hackers. For example, a common attack is the Man In The Middle (MITM), where a hacker steps into the middle of the link between your device and the internet source. This allows them to access all your data, like passwords saved on your device, bank details, and more. Unfortunately, without two-way authentication, you won’t even know it’s happened. 

By , an intruder will get your encrypted data but not be able to decrypt it. In fact, the US government uses the AES algorithm with a 256-bit key for encryption. So you can rest assured that you’re using good internet practices.

4. It uses confusing terms and conditions.

You usually have to register when connecting to a public hotspot, confirming you agree to terms and conditions through a text or email. This is yet another way to collect information. And by providing this info, you automatically agree to terms, which, let’s be honest, you haven’t read.

You may have authorized the internet provider to collect, store, and use your data at its own discretion. If you truly need to urgently use public Wi-Fi, the least you can do is encrypt all your other data with a VPN service.

5. It allows the transmission of viruses.

To harm you and potentially profit from you, hackers can install a virus on your smartphone while you’re connected to a private network. In doing so, they can blackmail you and threaten to delete all of your device’s information. And you just can’t lose all the vacation photos you haven’t backed up yet. Even worse, a virus may access your email or bank account.

Furthermore, some viruses send messages to your contact list asking them to follow a link. Thus they affect your friends and family members as well, making it about even more than just you.

6. It makes it easy for Toms to peek.

Not all those with malicious intent want your confidential information. Some are just creeps who like to spy on people in cafés and other public places. When you’re booking flight tickets, someone sitting behind you may keep an eye on your password and bank details as you type. Make sure to keep your wits about you as you work in public spaces.

A person is holding up the Wi-Fi symbol on a piece of paper in front of trees.

A person is holding up the Wi-Fi symbol on a piece of paper in front of trees.

How to protect yourself

Even though there are risks, sometimes you just have to use free public internet. Take these precautions to help avoid negative consequences.

  • Use a reliable VPN service so your connection is encrypted and protected from third-party intruders. This is one of the most effective means of protection while using free internet in public places.
  • Install antivirus software and make sure to keep it on as well as regularly renew it.
  • Turn WLAN off on your mobile device when unused. This makes intruders unable to infiltrate your device without your consent. What’s more, your device won’t automatically connect to networks it knows. 
  • Don’t trust available networks. If you are in a café, ask a waiter what their hotspot is called. Never connect to a hotspot named Free Wi-Fi or something like it.
  • Avoid bank transactions, making purchases, and sending confidential emails when connected to a public network. You don’t want to risk losing all your money or exposing private information.
  • Pay attention to your surroundings. Check if anyone around is spying on you, and try sitting next to the wall or in the corner. Remember to keep an eye on cameras installed for surveillance, too.

We hope you think this sounds a little excessive. Because that means you probably haven’t been blackmailed or dealt with spy software. Remember that there’s no such thing as a free lunch. So when an internet connection is provided free of charge, there may be underlying malicious intent. Don’t expose yourself to cyberattacks. Instead, be discreet and precautious by turning on a VPN before using free public internet on your device.

Madhurima Nag is the Head of Content at Gadget Flow. She side-hustles as a parenting and STEM influencer and loves to voice her opinion on product marketing, innovation and gadgets (of course!) in general.
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