Public Wi-Fi definitely isn’t the safest option available, although some of the dangers can be exaggerated at times. It can be unsafe because:
- Lack of encryption: Typically, communication on public Wi-Fi isn’t encrypted by the wireless network, meaning some of your data might be uploaded and downloaded unencrypted. While financial transactions are usually encrypted by the website you’re using, other information might be transmitted in the clear.
- SSID spoofing: People can create spoof Wi-Fi networks with legitimate-looking names. Any data you transmit over that network can be listened to and copied by the person controlling the network. They can redirect you to faked websites to steal your login details. For example, if you want to log in to Gmail to check your email, the spoofed network could redirect you to a mockup of a Gmail site controlled by the same person.
- Privacy loss: Legitimate public Wi-Fi providers often request personally identifiable information like your email address or name. Check their privacy statements to see what they track and what they do with any data they gather about your internet usage.
- Malware: If you have device discoverability and file sharing enabled for public networks (hint: don’t!), then it’s easier for malicious actors to add malware to your device over public Wi-Fi networks.
You can improve the security of connecting to a public Wi-Fi network by using a VPN.