Public Wi-Fi Safety: 1 in 4 People Have Experienced a Security Issue From Browsing on Unsecured Networks

All About Cookies surveyed people to find out how often they use public Wi-Fi networks, how safe they feel using it in different places, and how many have been hacked.
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Whether working remotely from a coffee shop or checking email at a hotel after a long day of travel, most people have used unsecured public Wi-Fi without thinking twice. While free Wi-Fi is convenient, there are risks associated with connecting to public networks.

To find out more about people’s safety habits when using public Wi-Fi, our team at All About Cookies surveyed 1,000 people and asked them how often they use public networks, where they feel safest, and if they’ve ever been negatively impacted.

In this article
Key findings
How often do people access public Wi-Fi?
Where do people feel most safe connecting to public networks?
Safe and unsafe behaviors while connecting to public Wi-Fi
How to stay safe on public Wi-Fi (and what can happen if you don’t)
More ways to keep yourself safe online
Expert insights
Methodology

Key findings

  • 69% of internet users access public Wi-Fi once a week or more.
  • Nearly half of internet users admit to connecting to Wi-Fi networks they don’t know for sure are legitimate.
  • Most people feel safe on public Wi-Fi, but it depends on where they access it. Libraries are the most trusted locations and public parks are the least trusted.
  • One in four regular Wi-Fi users has experienced a security issue from a public Wi-Fi network.

How often do people access public Wi-Fi?

People have become very accustomed to having internet access at all times. While cell phones have their own dedicated networks that provide secure access to the internet, laptops and tablets typically do not. Even when using a smartphone, there are many common situations where people use public Wi-Fi networks instead.

A chart showing percentages of people who access public wi-fi on their devices. The chart is divided by frequency of using these networks.

Nearly two out of every five people (38%) use public networks every single day, while 69% of people use them at least once a week. Only 9% of people say they never connect to public internet, meaning that the majority of the population is comfortable using public Wi-Fi networks.

Where do people feel most safe connecting to public networks?

Not all Wi-Fi networks are created equal, and users trust some more than others. The location of a public Wi-Fi network can go a long way toward influencing how safe or unsafe people feel it is.

A chart showing a variety of locations paired with percentages of people who say they feel safe or unsafe accessing public Wi-Fi networks at those locations.

The most trusted Wi-Fi networks are found at libraries, with 80% of respondents reporting they feel safe using their public networks. The second and third most-trusted networks are at hotels (74%) and co-working spaces (73%) — two places where users typically need to be registered in order to know the Wi-Fi password.

Public parks were perceived as the least secure place to access public Wi-Fi, with 59% reporting feeling unsafe using park networks.

Safe and unsafe behaviors while connecting to public Wi-Fi

No matter where the network is located or how much someone may trust it, there are certain things all users should avoid while logged into public Wi-Fi. Unfortunately, not everyone is vigilant about these behaviors.

Refraining from checking private or banking information is among the most recommended security measures experts suggest when accessing public Wi-Fi. Yet, more than half of internet users admit to logging personal information while on a public network, and 45% admit to accessing financial information.

This is a major danger given the ease at which identity thieves or other malicious actors can take valuable personal information, or even important data like routing numbers and social security numbers.

A good way to mitigate the risk of losing personal data is for users to ensure that any public Wi-Fi network they access is real and safe to use. Unfortunately, nearly half of people (47%) say they have connected to a public network in the past without verifying its legitimacy. This is a big no-no, as hackers and other bad actors can prey on people’s trusting natures and reliance on internet access by creating fake, unsecured networks that can look real but aren’t.

How to stay safe on public Wi-Fi (and what can happen if you don’t)

As long as public Wi-Fi networks are legitimate and secure, it is possible to use them safely, as long as users are smart and responsible while connected to them. Following the tips listed below can go a long way towards keeping data and devices safe while connected to public networks.

An infographic giving some do's and don'ts for accessing public Wi-Fi networks.

The importance of these kinds of tips cannot be underestimated, as the consequences of security breaches can cause major issues for users. Things like viruses, stolen data, and hacked devices and accounts are some common results of security breaches caused by unsafe public Wi-Fi use, and they are distressingly common.

In fact, nearly one out of every five people (18%) has experienced a security issue along those lines as a direct result of using public networks. This ratio jumps to nearly one in four (24%) among people that access public Wi-Fi on a daily basis.

Expert insights


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Prof. Justin Cappos

Associate Professor of Computer Science and Engineering

New York University

What do you believe are some of the greatest risks you take when connecting to public Wi-Fi without any precautions?

There are three things that are important when it comes to Wi-Fi. There's public Wi-Fi, which is completely open, there's WEP, and then there's WPA. With public Wi-Fi, anybody on the network can see and interfere with what everyone else is doing.

And so if you're doing this, I know they're able to attack you fairly easily because the protocol is essentially just letting you have open communications on that wireless.

Could you go into some more specifics about WPE vs WPA?

WEP is slightly more secure. It has a lot of the same problems as public Wi-Fi because it was not designed very well. So if you're on a WEP network, people can break in and see what you're doing and everyone has a shared key on that wireless network. So while it's a little better, it's comparable to having a door that's wide open versus a lock that is just a little lash that anybody who knows what they're doing can flip open.

A WPA network still has some security problems, but is much more secure. You should really be using WPA3, but WPA is still pretty good. Someone isn't going to be able to hack you if you're using a WPA network. The real problem is someone can interfere with, intercept, read, or even change the network traffic you send. So if you log into something thinking you're going to a legitimate site when you're not and you type your password in, they can get that information.

Are certain public networks safer than others? For example, are hotel Wi-Fi networks safer than the airport Wi-Fi?

They're all going to be potentially problematic. One problem is figuring out what the actual Wi-Fi is. A lot of people will just open their phone or laptop and connect to something that looks legitimate.

If I see an airport network named “STL free wifi”, I'm going to think it's probably the legitimate wireless network here. Something that attackers can do is they can set up a network with a familiar looking name so you connect to their fake network while they connect to the actual wireless network and relay your traffic. Meanwhile, they can go and change things or read what you're doing. This is all to say the location of the network doesn't matter as much as knowing that you're actually connected to the correct one.

What are certain activities or tasks you should avoid doing while connected to public Wi-Fi? Which activities are typically low-risk and why?

Things that are more sensitive, like banking or logging into your email or logging into your social media accounts. An attacker can potentially gain control of those while connected to a public network

There are some things you can do to actually protect yourself quite well against these types of things. One of the things you can do is you can use a VPN. The VPN software will basically always verify that it is correctly connecting to the VPN. And once that happens, all of the communication from your computer to the VPN is protected.

Another effective tool for doing this is a password manager. Password managers remember and save your passwords for different websites and those have protections built into them so that if someone tries to send you to a site name that looks just like the site, but isn't actually the site you’re looking for, your password will not autofill because it will not recognize the site.

Responses have been slightly edited for clarity.

More ways to keep yourself safe online

Public Wi-Fi is a great convenience, but there are still ways to remain safe when using an unsecure network:

  • Build up best practices. Knowing a few baseline tips on how to stay safe online will help make sure your information and devices remain protected, even when connected to public Wi-Fi.
  • Invest in identity theft protection. Identity theft protection services are a great way to monitor your data and information online, alerting you to many breaches and issues while providing resources for recovering anything that is lost or stolen.
  • Download a VPN for browsing. Virtual private networks (VPNs) are a great way to keep yourself safe online no matter where you are browsing from. Be sure to review available options and use the best VPN possible to increase your digital security.

Methodology

All About Cookies surveyed 1,000 U.S. adults about their public Wi-Fi use in August 2023.

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Author Details
Josh Koebert is an experienced content marketer that loves exploring how tech overlaps with topics such as sports, food, pop culture, and more. His work has been featured on sites such as CNN, ESPN, Business Insider, and Lifehacker.