Jamie Warmbir

Is Public WiFi Ever Safe to Use? Here’s What You Need to Know

Our connected devices are an integral part of our lives. They keep us connected to our businesses, family, entertainment, and more. This also means that unless we’re careful about not storing and erasing our devices’ memory, they also contain a lot of valuable and sensitive data. When in the wrong hands, this data could be used to harm us.

How do we protect our data?

We keep our data safe by taking steps to secure it, by installing firewalls and virus protection software, and using password managers like LastPass. A popular topic within this discussion is public WiFi connections.

There’s an ongoing debate about if using a shared connection, or a public WiFi network is ever safe. Several years ago, there was a consensus among experts that you should never use a public network when using your work computer or any device with information you don't want to share with the world. Public WiFi exists nearly everywhere from coffee shops to downtown areas, and I'm asked from time to time if it's safe to use these networks to conduct business.

Regardless of what I or other experts think, it’s clear that people are still using these networks freely.  Are you? In a survey, 70% of those polled who own a tablet and 53% of those with smartphones say that they use public WiFi hotspots.

Do you know who you’re sharing an internet connection with?

Think of the connection in your home and at your business as your personal backyard. A public WiFi connection is a public park in a town you've never visited before. Statistics say that you're much safer in your backyard than you are in a strange public park, and the same is true when it comes to your internet connection.

Will you always run into trouble in a public park? No, of course not, but you should always use caution when visiting a place you've never been before.  Similarly, be cautious when using a public internet connection that you don't know much about. In the park example, there could be a kid (hacker) across the park (public WiFi) who wants your basketball (password).  Who you are in a park (public WiFi) with matters.  When you are in a public park, you can’t control who else is there with you. You do control your private network (home or office), but someone else controls a public one, and there may be some shady characters about.

What if I need to use a public WiFi connection?

If you are considering using a public internet connection, there should be a password or splash page required to gain access to the network. This indicates a higher level of sophistication in network management but isn’t a guarantee the network is safe.  If the network is open to anyone and everyone, there's greater risk, and I would not use that connection.

I prefer to tether my laptop to my phone via a hotspot instead of connecting it to a public WiFi connection that I don't know.