It’s 2018, and free public Wi-Fi is everywhere. We’ve come to expect that cafés, restaurants, airports, subway stations, and even public parks will offer us an internet connection as a basic utility. We expect it to be fast, and we expect it to be free.
But how much is free, exactly? Why are businesses so willing to offer this public “service” free of charge? What are we sacrificing when we hastily click “I agree” to a public Wi-Fi operator’s lengthy user agreement?
Take my data, please
Modern businesses love data. Even your ho-hum everyday browsing activity (like checking email, reading the news, or checking sports scores) enables powerful algorithms to build scarily accurate models of consumer behavior that are extremely valuable to marketers.
If you take a moment to read the fine print of a typical Wi-Fi user agreement, you’ll probably find words authorizing the Wi-Fi operator to “collect,” “monitor,” “intercept,” and/or “share” your internet traffic.
In other words, anything you do on the “privacy” of your own phone or laptop while connected to public Wi-Fi is not very private at all.
Living in a hacker’s paradise
It’s not just the Wi-Fi operators who have free rein on your connection. Most free public Wi-Fi networks are unsecured, which means hackers of any skill level can take advantage of their users.
One common attack is the man-in-the-middle (MITM) attack, in which a hacker tricks your computer and the Wi-Fi router into believing they are communicating with each other, when in fact the hacker is intercepting and relaying every piece of data.
Hackers can also set up a fake Wi-Fi network of their own in the hopes that you will connect to it by mistake. You can name a network anything you want, so there’s nothing stopping a hacker from calling their malicious network “FREE STARBUCKS WIFI” or “Chicago O’Hare Airport – Guest.”
By far the easiest way of protecting yourself on free public Wi-Fi is to use a VPN (virtual private network). A trustworthy VPN will hide your IP address and encrypt your traffic, preventing data collection by network operators as well as direct attacks from Wi-Fi hackers.
If you don’t have a VPN, you should only browse sites that use HTTPS, the encrypted version of HTTP. Most browsers will signify a secure HTTPS connection with a lock icon in the address bar.
At the very least, take a few moments to scan the Wi-Fi user agreement before blindly agreeing. If you see words like “monitor,” “record,” “share,” etc., consider how badly you really need “free” internet right now. Is it really worth the price?