Risks of using public WiFi networks

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Nowadays, WiFi networks can be found at every coffee shop, airport, restaurant etc. These public WiFi networks are very convenient for everybody visiting these places, including cyber criminals.

Public WiFi networks are unsecured since they allow movement of data through airwaves without encryption. This allows attackers to easily hijack your data. Here, we discuss some ways in which cyber criminals can attack you over an unsecured network –

1 Sniffers –

Using sniffer software like Wireshark, hackers can passively intercept data exchanged between you and the web server. As a result, they can see what you’re doing which includes them seeing you enter your login credentials, read the e-mails you send or receive etc.

2 WiFi Honeypot –

It refers to a fake wireless hotspot setup by cyber criminals to lure unsuspecting users to connect to it. Furthermore, it is set up such that it closely resembles the actual WiFi connection present at the location. All data transfer through this hotspot is controlled by the hacker. As a result, he/she can look all internet traffic you browse through and can even pose as a legitimate service asking for confidential information, such as a payment company asking for credit information.

3 Man in the Middle Attack –

One of the most common threats on these networks is referred to as Man-in-the-Middle (MitM) attack. Essentially, a MitM attack is a form of eavesdropping. When a computer makes a connection to the Internet, data is sent from point A (computer) to point B (service/website), and vulnerabilities can allow an attacker to get in between these transmissions and “read” them. Furthermore, the attacker can also inject malicious code on the website you visit, making it easier to infect your computer.

4 Side jacking –

Another common threat making user of sniffers. Sniffers, as we have discussed earlier, are programs which intercept and log traffic passing over a network. They are used to steal session cookies. They are the cookies which validate your session at most websites which require authentication, like Facebook.

5 Spreading Infections –

It is very easy for cyber criminals to spread infections over an unsecured WiFi network. This allows them to lay the groundwork for a botnet of devices (network of compromised devices) prior to staging a large scale attack, say a DDoS (Distributed Denial of Service) attack, on a target.

6 DNS Poisoning –

DNS is the service which translates the URL you enter in the address bar of your web browser into an IP address, which the server understands, to take you to the requisite website. DNS poisoning is an attack in which the DNS service is compromised. Therefore, the attacker decides which website would open on your screen if you enter a certain URL. For example, if you enter facebook.com in your browser’s address bar and press enter, instead of opening the actual page, the attacker can choose to display a fake Facebook page, which resembles the original page, to steal your login credentials. In other words, DNS poisoning allows the attacker to easily conduct phishing attacks.

(Image courtesy – howtogeek.com)


(Please note that there are various ways all these attacks can be carried out, which I have not written about due to obvious reasons. For those of you who know how to carry out such attacks, please educate people around you about them.)


While using public WiFi is very dangerous, it can be made secure by the use of VPN. VPN, which stands for Virtual Private Network, tunnels all your traffic through an encrypted route, thereby encrypting your data. Read more about VPNs here.

If you are not using a VPN, refrain from using any website which requires authentication, and especially avoids any financial transactions.


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