When you connect your computer to a WiFi network, you’re sending all of your Internet traffic through some device like a router or access point. If that access point is trustworthy, it should just pass your traffic to and from the Internet without making changes. But if a malicious person set up the access point or is connected to it at the same time, it could be possible for them to do things like:
- Snoop on what you’re doing online and record what websites you visit
- Steal your passwords, or record other information
- Change the content of websites you’re visiting, to insert ads or misleading information
- Hack your phone or computer, directly or by making you download malware
If you use the free WiFi provided somewhere like a coffee shop or an airport, you’re trusting the people who set it up with all of your Internet traffic. That doesn’t just mean that you trust your local coffee shop not to try and hack you. It also means you trust them to keep their WiFi secure, so that no hackers can take over that access point for their own purposes. Very few coffee shops have expert computer security teams!
What are the alternatives to using free WiFi on the go?
If you’re out and about and need to get online, your best bet is to use a cellular internet connection that you pay for and control. There are a few different ways to do this.
If you have an up-to-date smartphone or tablet with a cellular connection, try to use your data on that device! If you can do what you need on your phone, this is often safer than open WiFi.
Another option, if you have a smartphone, is to see if it supports “tethering” or “personal hotspot” mode. This lets you set up your phone as your own WiFi access point, which you can use to get online with your laptop or another device. If your phone’s hotspot mode lets you set a password, do so, and make it a strong one! Remember that any traffic sent to a personal hotspot counts against your phone’s data limits.
If you’re frequently on the go and need to get online, consider investing in a dedicated mobile hotspot. These hotspots usually have their own data plan that you pay for, and similar to getting a cell phone, you would purchase a hotspot device and sign up for a plan with a cellular provider.
What about using a VPN?
A Virtual Private Network (VPN) is an extension of a private network (like one set up inside an office by a business) over a public one (like the internet). In a business setting, for example, a remote user connected to the business’s privately operated VPN would be connected to the same internal network that they would be if they were inside their office building. This type of VPN setup has management and security benefits.
For campaigns who have tech staff, we recommend setting up your own instance of Algo, an Open Source VPN. If you don’t have that option, we don’t recommend using commercial VPNs because there’s been bad activity by many of them in the past. And we certainly don’t recommend using any free VPNs because they’re most likely selling your data to provide the service.
If you must use free WiFi while you're on the go, we have tips to help you do so more securely.