You’re in a café, browsing away, and you suddenly remember that you’re out of dish soap. You quickly order it online. The next thing you know, your credit card company sends you a fraudulent alert and freezes your credit card. As theatrical as this scenario sounds, there are many cases similar to this that take place every single day. Oftentimes the victims of these online thefts don't even realize their information has been compromised.
Yes. When you're using public Wi-Fi, the Wi-Fi provider can see your browsing history. Your browsing history is not private because Wi-Fi routers keep logs of browsing history and with the logs, Wi-Fi providers can see what websites you open and sometimes they can see information that you provide while on public Wi-Fi.
The best way to protect yourself while on public Wi-Fi is by using a VPN (virtual private network). A VPN establishes a secure connection, and encrypts the data you are sending and receiving. This way, even when a hacker connects to the same Wi-Fi you are using, it is much more difficult for them to “eavesdrop” on your activities. There are many other reasons why one should be using a VPN, and we've explained them further in our "10 Reasons You Should Use a VPN" article.
There are a number of ways in which your privacy can be threatened while using public Wi-Fi. Some ways are through the sale of your personal data to third parties and through the malicious acts of hackers.
Ever wonder why marketing ads are so tailored to your needs and desires? In addition to all of the cookies and pixels that are tracking your online behavior and the websites you visit, it could well be that your information has been sold many times over and companies have a lot of data about you. With this data, they can more accurately target you and have better chances of selling their products and services to you.
We're not saying that all public Wi-Fi providers are selling your data, rather we're saying that you should be careful when using Wi-Fi from Wi-Fi providers you don't know or trust. All Wi-Fi providers have the ability to hold an enormous amount of user browsing history and malicious ones could be selling your information to the higher bidder. Don't be a victim of your favorite coffee shop!
For the most part, public Wi-Fi network providers are not intentionally selling user data. Most public Wi-Fi providers are just trying to provide a service to attract customers to their physical spaces (i.e. coffee shops, libraries, malls). While most Wi-Fi providers are not trying to maliciously take advantage of those who use their Wi-Fi, there are people who are intentionally trying to take advantage of innocent Internet users - hackers.
There are many ways a hacker can attack innocent Internet users.
They can set up a fake hotspot that has a very similar name to the network you are looking to connect to, such as "coffeehouse123". Once you connect to this Wi-Fi network, the hackers have the ability to scan your information, including your passwords, online banking accounts, and emails.
Other attacks can include MITM (Man in the Middle), Sidejacking (Session Hacking), and Packet Sniffing. In short, hackers can do things such as get in between you and the server, implant malware, or intercept files you are trying to share. To this day, hackers continue to come up with creative ways to get personal data and who knows what other methods will be used in the future.
While we have painted a terrible doomsday view of public Wi-Fi, there are some ways you can protect your data while browsing the Internet using your local coffee shop's Wi-Fi. You can browse the internet safely by only visiting websites that are secured and by avoiding public Wi-Fi networks without passwords.
One way to check if your website is secure is by looking at the URL bar. If you're using a Chrome browser, you'll see a closed lock here. Other browsers may have something similar.
You are much safer visiting a secure website (hence the "s" after http), because it has encryption in place. This means that your ISP, Wi-Fi provider, VPN and other third parties cannot see the information your inputting on websites. Imagine your bank not being secured and third parties being able to see your banking information!
Nowadays, most browsers will alert you before you can enter a non-secure site i.e. one that starts with "http://". Nonetheless, always be cautious, especially when using public Wi-Fi.
Passwords provide an extra layer of encryption that renders hacking more difficult. If you must use public Wi-Fi without a password, always visit secure sites (with https://), and do not perform sensitive activities such as online banking transactions.
Ultimately, the best way to take control of your privacy and to protect your browsing history is by using good VPN. It renders infiltration of your device to be much more difficult, so you can keep your browsing history private, the way it should be.
There are various VPN providers out there that you can use based on your needs. If you're interested in learning more about a great privacy solution, we suggest you check out FreePN. We designed FreePN to solve the pain points of many other VPNs (some log your data, throttle your speed, cap your bandwidth, etc....) and best of all it's free for everyone to use!
Sign up for FreePN's waitlist here. As an advocate for online privacy, we don't collect any of your personal information. You don't need to make an account to use FreePN and we never log any of your information. FreePN's code is completely open source so check our claims for yourself here!