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If you use public Wi-Fi, exercise caution to reduce risks

Free Wi-Fi sign in public place


The best way to avoid the security risks of free, public Wi-Fi is simply not to use it. Wait if possible, and go online later in a more secure environment.

If you can’t wait, if you have to get online immediately and public Wi-Fi in a coffee shop, hotel lobby or some other public setting is your only option, take precautions.

If possible, use secured Wi-Fi, which typically requires users to log in. It’s more likely to be safe.

Remember that when you use free Wi-Fi, a hacker might be positioned between you and the connection point, gathering data.

“There are risks with public Wi-Fi. The main one is you really don’t know what you’re connecting to,” said Chad Pew, manager of IT at SDN Communications in Sioux Falls. “It could be a rogue access point, and someone is on there capturing all the traffic that goes across.”

The most obvious “do not” rule of thumb in accessing public Wi-Fi is this: Don’t access personal bank accounts or other sensitive personal information.

Also, do not leave your laptop or phone unattended. Someone might tinker with it.

Don’t leave Bluetooth on, either. Hackers can use short-range, wireless connections to gain access to electronic information.

In general, device features such as automatic connectivity and file sharing should be turned off when not in use.

“Another thing is to keep your antivirus and anti-malware up to date on the machine you’re using to connect,” Pew said. “If somebody is doing a man-in-the-middle attack, a lot of times antivirus can detect that there’s an issue.”

Perhaps the most important rule involving the use of public Wi-Fi is to use a Virtual Private Network, or VPN solution, if possible. VPNs create a private tunnel for moving information by encrypting electronic information. Encryption makes the data unreadable to anyone who intercepts the information before it reaches its destination.

Some companies provide employees who work remotely with access to a corporate VPN to enhance network security. Other VPN services are available to businesses and individuals, too, usually at a cost. Free services might be available, but they put limitations on use.

In the long run, the cost of connecting to a VPN network is probably worthwhile.

Pew notes that most people carry a smartphone. Sometimes they can avoid the risks of public Wi-Fi by using their mobile phone rather than a laptop to connect with their wireless provider’s nearest small cell pole or macro tower. Using a phone also could allow the user to create a personal internet hotspot and avoid using public Wi-Fi.

One reason some people readily connect to free, public Wi-Fi networks, despite the risks, is that they might not have an unlimited data plan and want to save overage charges. With free Wi-Fi everywhere from restaurants to public waiting areas, it’s convenient.

Even secured Wi-Fi presents risks to the user. A network might be fundamentally vulnerable to attack. Hackers and the tools they use have gotten very good at exploiting weaknesses.

Keep in mind that any information accessed or shared on a Wi-Fi network might be at risk. Minimize those risks any way that you can.

SDN Communications is a regional leader in providing broadband connectivity and cybersecurity services to businesses in communities such as Sioux Falls, Rapid City, Worthington, and the surrounding areas.


SDN Communications has released its fourth series of cybersecurity posters, featuring information about social engineering, the dangers of public wi-fi and more about multi-factor authentication. Click the image below to request free downloads of copies to print and hang at your business.

Free Cybersecurity Posters