The high price of free Wi-Fi: This is why you should never connect to an unsecured network

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Later that day strange things start to happen. Your phone doesn’t work quite as expected and you start receiving a deluge of what appears to be harmless spam.

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Let me set the scene for you: you’re on your way and need to stop for a coffee. You enter the café and the smell is the first thing that tempts you. Then, you see all the lovable people sitting around making deals, writing the great American novel, conversing, and generally enjoying themselves. You will then notice a sign that says “Free Wi-Fi.”

calendar!

You pull out your phone, open the Network Connection app and notice that the wireless connection doesn’t have a password.

even better.

You connect to the wireless network and order your tall quad in a Venti Cup Half Caffe Double Double Sleeveless Salted Caramel Mocha Latte with two pumps of vanilla substitute mocha, two pumps of white chocolate mocha mocha and two pumps of hazelnut for toffee walnuts, half whole milk and half brev without whipped cream.

While the coffee maker prepares your ridiculously complex order, you can sit back and start using all the free Wi-Fi. You email, communicate with team members on Slack, send SMS to friends and family, check in on Facebook, and tweet the most in-depth statements Twitter has ever seen.

Life is good.

You get on your drink and carry on as if nothing can touch you.

In the end, don’t leave and don’t think about anything from your experience (other than how great your coffee is and how your Twitter game is).

Later that day (or maybe the next day) strange things start to happen. Your phone doesn’t work quite as expected and you start receiving a deluge of what appears to be harmless spam.

Well, well… it’s all in one day, right?

But then you get a warning from your bank.

And you start seeing reactions to things you haven’t posted or sent.

You log in to your bank account to find your balance at zero.

Panic spreads.

What happened? You have always been very careful about your bank account credentials and do not share this kind of information with anyone.

This can’t be real, can it?

It probably all started with connecting to a simple wireless network without a password.

The truth is, you are not safe. Your information is not secure, your identity is not secure, your mobile devices are not secure. For this reason, you have to take every possible precaution, which means never (never, ever) connect to an unsecured network.

Why are unsecured networks so bad?

The simple fact is that when you connect to an unsecured Wi-Fi network, you open your device to anyone who is also connected to the same wireless network. But why is this so bad? So what if other people can see my device on the network?

Let me put this in simpler terms.

Not every app you use on your mobile device encrypts your data. This means that you can send usernames, passwords, and even text messages in plain text. What does it mean? Simple: When you use an application that works with encryption, any data you send or receive is encrypted in a way that makes it very difficult to read. So instead of sending a plain text “password” (which you should never use), you’d send something like this instead:

hQGMA0mnhEQQ+utUAQwAixnPWw4LcXk1Njq0zHc8RRYnlN1424RASIT+s0d9DAHe
wIwzrLemIKo0Z97aZ97g0FdmlbWbPELt4Er7O0L/4ERvaWRhW3hf7WsipX0/PAVD
Kz99IN/TT6srb6T08f6wpVCn4kuKl60Dl2630QvFxe4HtmbgzqnzqdUZ53sFknX4
TlRJw8K8lZ+/o5nW88JG+3MfKq/gd5eHIxDWLUZg5MDORhPy6FckeuF4ejWjKfzM
WCkNP+IEq7trZ6/SH724HES8nHxIiaH9CaI1D7cHckR0cvF40Xo+rCIP9Qu6Ahax
yOHqKmDhjfjV11H4MVZrhjn2zFI5jBahmUvZc0+JvtHuI/Bd26buo50Xg3co01em
kog0P9GK/4TNMtIuxupiSMryNM0l18FjWzso6ojf662nF4nDpiUQmJVCcpRhSNHO
twXM1tvmNSjN0OTf6hiU3tD4iE1N5FhTSkeq7Rz9DunraO7aILNArpt8ndbOssV5
gt5eWnsGMUR/7EK6htvA0kQBgHjl0o98rjTcvTF+pZtQSr3omSQTiafRXDxHBbT7
xbMWyNxWQ91PEDWuTtaMbqlDkxbUmqlFFJ6XgvyzqjsRqaTuCQ==
=psm9

This, my friends, is encryption. And unless all of your apps are using it, you’re sending plain text over a network that anyone can access. Once connected, the bad actor can use a sniffer to intercept and read plaintext data packets. The tools used to capture these packages are readily available to anyone.

You might think this is just a warning that can be ignored at will. To this point, you would be right. This is a warning, but one that you should heed. When you connect to unsecured wireless networks, it is only a matter of time before someone intercepts your data and you fall prey to any number of nefarious acts.

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Here are the reasons why you can’t connect to an unsecured wireless network:

This is really the only point you need. And while I would like to address this matter for you, the fact of the matter is that the longer you ignore this advice, the more vulnerable you are.

What can you do?

You may find yourself in a situation where you have to connect to an unsecured wireless network (you may have run out of data and have work to do). When you find yourself in such a situation, consider the possible options:

  • Never send any passwords or sensitive information when connected to this unsecured wireless network.
  • Use a VPN (like Tunnelbear) when connecting to these unsecured networks (it will encrypt and anonymize your data).
  • Use a more secure web browser (like Brave or Firefox), so you can enable features like Always Use HTTPS and Secure DNS.
  • Enable Secure DNS in the web browser of your choice (so that all your searches are encrypted).
  • Enable end-2-end encryption in the Android Messenger app (Settings > Chat features > Enable chat features) so that all of your SMS messages are encrypted.
  • Disable sharing features as needed (so you don’t open your device to more unwanted connections from bad actors).
  • Invest in an unlimited data plan for your phone, so you’ll never have to worry about connecting to an unsecured network.

Let’s break down what has already been done. The best course of action you can take is to invest in an unlimited data plan. why? With an unlimited plan, you’ll never need to connect to an unsecured wireless network (especially considering how fast 5G speeds are). However, if that’s not an option, I’d highly suggest, at the very least, that you use a VPN every time you connect to an unsecured network, work with a more secure browser and enable end-2-end encryption on your SMS apps. As you can see, other than just using your data plan, there is no one-step solution to this problem. And even when using your carrier data, you can up your security game by following the tips above.

The same is true when using a laptop and especially true when using a Windows laptop. If the site you’re working on only offers an unsecured network, your best bet is to hook up your laptop to your mobile device and use your phone’s data plan to connect.

I know there is a tendency to call your attention to such warnings, but you should take this very seriously. Do not connect to unsecured wireless networks. interval. End. to. story. If you value your privacy and the security of your data, you will follow this tip to the letter.