Convenience and Risks of Public Wi-Fi Connections: Choices and Warnings

As I write this, I have just finished a toasted bagel and am sipping on my coffee in a café equipped with free wireless (Wi-Fi) service. I am aware, as all users of such services need to be, that the convenience of being able to access the Internet with no cost in a public place carries with it certain risks. Most of the risks can be avoided by deliberately managing how you use it.

The benefits of free Internet access are truly outstanding. Carrying my wireless-ready laptop, I can log onto the net and do whatever I need to as long as I am somewhere that offers a wireless connection. There are three essential types of publicly accessible wireless service:

1) Some places charge customers by the minute, quarter hour or hour for the access. I avoid those spots and, before traveling, search “Free Wi-Fi” in the city I am going to on Google and identify a few that are close to where I will be – or that are along my route. The places that charge a fee control access by some combination of passwords being issued to users along with a timer device of some kind;

2) There are “hotspots” that are free to anyone who comes in and asks. They are then given the password to access that particular wireless network. The presumed advantage of having a required password is that someone sitting outside in their car, or next door cannot access the signal without it. I have found, however, that many places offering the free Wi-Fi access and requiring a password never change the password – rendering the idea and potential, though limited, ‘protection’ of having one null and void; and finally,

3) There are “hotspots” where no password is required. You can just walk in, sit down, power up and access the free Wi-Fi signal. This is my favorite kind for general uses and is the kind I am sitting and writing this in right now. Additionally, with the help of a superboost wifi, I was able to have strong Internet connection.

What is important to realize is that ALL THREE of these varieties of public Wi-Fi access, paid or free, password required or not, have the very same vulnerabilities that any informed wireless user needs to be aware of. These all start and end with the key word (no, not ‘key wording’) PUBLIC.

‘Public’ means that anyone – yes, anyone- who is sharing that Wi-Fi access account with you who has the toxic if not lethal combination of malicious intent and technical skill can not only see what you are doing, watching and writing while you are online but can also, through this mode of shared access, actually get into, read and steal information on the hard drive of your computer (Yes, you could be ‘hacked’ into)!

That’s right. Credit Card, account and Social Security numbers are available to be ‘picked’ by a larcenous techie. Literally anything and everything on that computer’s memory is at risk of being scanned and stolen. Your entire system can, indeed, be hacked into and/or hijacked (Used by someone else for their own purposes without your permission of even awareness.)!

So, if you are planning to use (or are using) public Wi-Fi access, treating it in the same way as you might your home computer is a little bit like having unprotected sexual relations with a stranger. It is a foolish, unnecessary risk that is pretty easy to avoid by following the following tips:

– NEVER do you online shopping while on a public access Wi-Fi network. Doing so can and does expose your credit card and account information to any nefarious hacker/thief sitting at the next table looking innocent at their own laptop.

– Avoid writing any deeply personal or confidential information, online, while in such a public Wi-Fi situation. The reason is the same. It can be read as though it were being publicly posted by someone out to survey other users for useful and/or valuable information.

– As an extra measure of security, it is wise to never use the portable computer you travel with for purposes like those mentioned above. Save those activities for the security of your home, secure connection. If you have already done so, consider cleaning that data off of the hard drive of your laptop.

There is software available that makes this process thorough and effectively and completely erases it. ShredItX, Active Kill Disk, Snitch and Evidence Eraser are some of the better known products that go beyond simply ‘deleting’ something. Those in the know understand that the things we ‘delete’ are still on the hard drive and can be recovered and read, then used and abused by anyone technically skilled in that area.

All of the aforementioned is not, I assure you, a function of paranoia. There are REAL risks in a world that houses some people who will take whatever they can get however they can get it. It is only sensible for reasonable people to take reasonable precautions.

On the other hand, I am writing and will submit this article to this site from this public, free, no-password Wi-Fi café. I’m not worried. Nothing about it is confidential or secret. In fact, I expect that within a week, it will be posted on the most publicly accessible place of all, the internet. If anybody decides to ‘steal’ my sites sites / Content Producer URL, that’d be great! Maybe I’ll pick up a couple of more Page Views.


Nicole Hennig
Nicole Hennig is a freelance writer, content writer, blogger, and also a photographer. She graduated from the University of Caloocan in Johannesburg, South Africa in 2015.

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