We have all been in a position at some point where you need to get online, but you’re running low on data or can’t get a great signal. In these cases, public WiFi can be a lifesaver. Hotspots can be found across most towns and cities and are usually free to access – but they are not always reliable connections, and knowing where they are when you are in a rush is not always easy.
Thankfully, there are a number of great apps that will help you to find what you are looking for and get connected.
A popular solution is WiFiMap, a crowd-sourced app that is constantly revised by other users, ensuring that the login details are always up to date. However, users should always check feedback on different hotspots to make sure they are recommended by the community before connecting.
The map is estimated to contain as many as 100 million hotspots worldwide, including 11,464 in London alone. The paid version of the app includes the ability to download and use the map offline.
Swedish company Instabridge claim to have built the world’s largest WiFi sharing community with an app that provides users with access to over one million WiFi hotspots and passwords.
The app includes a number of useful features including auto-connect, to keep you connected without the frustration of having to hop from connection to connection as you travel, and filters to find hotspots capable of providing high-quality streams.
Taking a slightly different approach, WiFox focuses on airport WiFi and lounge passwords. The service relies on verification from other users, but this allows it to provide real-time updates, meaning that you can stay connected, even on an unexpected layover.
Rather than trying to find the WiFi zone in a segmented airport or figuring out the passwords for different logins, WiFox will give you all the information you need.
Risks of using free WiFi
In most cases, there is a reason why a service is free. Sometimes free apps act as limited trials of the full, paid version or are ad-supported. Both may be true in the case of public WiFi, but the main concern for users is the lack of security for your data.
Most free WiFi hotspots will not be encrypted, meaning that everything you do while connected is not protected and could be viewed by a third party. From your browsing activity to payment and account details, everything you send or receive could be exposed. What happens to your data then is out of your control. This information could be sold on to advertising and marketing agencies, or could be collected by hackers who use it to gain access to your accounts before you even realise something has happened.
Hackers are aware that many people value convenience over safety and so there are likely to be numerous vulnerable targets anywhere there is public WiFi. A common strategy is a Man in the Middle attack, in which hackers position themselves between you and the sites you visit, giving them access to any information you send without your knowledge. To perform this type of attack, hackers have even been known to set up fake WiFi hotspots close to legitimate services in the hope that busy commuters will click on generic hotspot name like “Airport WiFi” without realising the scam.
How to keep safe
The simplest way to stay safe online is to use your own data plan and avoid connecting to any form of unsecured connection. Of course, this is not always possible. So if you are out of data and need to connect to public WiFi at the airport or on a train, make sure you use a virtual private network, or VPN, as well.
Connecting through a VPN will protect your activity with end-to-end encryption, meaning that should anyone access your data, all they will see is an unintelligible string of alphanumeric characters. Another benefit is the boost to your online anonymity. A VPN will tunnel your connection through their servers, which are based around the world. The result is that your device’s IP address will be masked, allowing you to appear to be browsing from another country and preventing your activity from being connected to you.
Some services also include a kill switch. If you are on an unreliable connection, there could be a fraction of a second when reconnecting after a drop out that your real IP address is revealed, and any data being transferred is not encrypted. A kill switch will prevent this by cutting your connection entirely any time the VPN is not active.
A VPN might sound complicated, but many services are inexpensive and easy to use, with apps for mobile devices making connecting as simple as clicking on a server location and pressing ‘go’.
While it certainly has its benefits, public WiFi in busy areas is low hanging fruit for hackers. Without sufficient levels of security, connecting could be putting your personal data at risk of theft and your accounts in danger of being impersonated. So the next time you need to use the free WiFi in a coffee shop or train station, make sure your VPN is active before connecting.