Public Wi-Fi is convenient, and it allows us to save on data costs and work on the go, as these networks are usually in public places such as airports, coffee shops and shopping malls.
But, no matter the convenience, we recommend caution if you connect to public networks as firstly, you do not have any knowledge of who created the public network and for what (potentially sinister reason), and secondly, it is impossible to know who else or how many other people are connected to the same network.
Although it seems impractical to not use public Wi-Fi as some people rely on the free internet connection to be able to do their work, it is important to be aware of the privacy and security risks that connecting to a public Wi-Fi connection can entail.
For instance, if you connect to an unsecured public network, your devices could be prone to what is known as a “Man in the Middle Attack”. This cyber-attack occurs when data is intercepted between devices connected to a Wi-Fi hotspot in such a way that it appears to both parties that they are communicating directly but because the data is now intercepted and is passing through the “man in the middle”, this can result in the vulnerability of your sensitive information and also allows this so-called “middle man” to manipulate the communications between the parties. This is not ideal if you are communicating with colleagues or clients or dealing with sensitive or confidential information.
Alternatives to using public Wi-Fi:
- A USB Modem – This is a portal device that allows you to upload data bundles onto the device and connect it to your laptop anywhere. You can also create a password for the access of the internet connection from the USB modem, as this will restrict the number of users that can access the network.
- Cellular Hotspot – Most smartphones have a portable Wi-Fi hotspot option which allows you to create a portable hotspot for yourself and will allow your other devices to connect to that network. Similar to the USB Modem, a password can be created on your cellular device for the connectivity of the cellular hotspot, restricting the number of users that can access the hotspot without having the password.
Tips to follow when accessing public Wi-Fi:
- In the event that you do need to connect to public Wi-Fi, don’t log into sites or cell phone apps like your banking app that contain sensitive information and require password access, unless you are certain that the connection is secured using SSL/TLS. Your browser will usually indicate that the connection is secure. For example, both Firefox and Chrome use a padlock before the URL to indicate a secure connection.
- Do not forget to log out of the network that you had connected your devices to, as this will prevent automatic reconnection to the network should you be in the vicinity of the public network again and If you do not wish to be connected to a public network, ensure to turn off your devices’ automatic connection to prevent any unwanted connections on public networks.
- Make use of a Virtual Private Network (“VPN”) if possible. A VPN encrypts the connection on your device and the wider internet. Creating a personal VPN will allow you to connect and browse using public networks that aren’t secured and decrease the chances of having sensitive information intercepted.
Even if you are making use of a VPN when connected to a public Wi-Fi network, you still need to ensure you do not click on suspicious links, download material on questionable websites or open pop-up blocks and potentially put the data that you are sending or receiving at risk.
Why is it important to use a secure network?
The interception of electronic data is a real threat, and as a result, it is important for businesses to have secure, efficient and effective ways to be able to continue to conduct their business and communicate with colleagues and clients effectively, even outside of the office. For this reason, we advise the use of a secure network by following the above tips in order to reduce the risk of sensitive information being intercepted as a result of communications that were made via unsafe or unsecured networks.
The Regulation of Interception of Communications and Provision of Communication – Related Information Act 70 of 2002 (“RICA”) regulates the interception of private communications, by authorising the interception of certain communications, as interception of communications generally constitute an unlawful violation of the right to privacy, unless the interception is listed as one of the exceptions under RICA.
Section 2 of RICA also provides that “No person may intentionally intercept or attempt to intercept or authorise or procure any other person to intercept or attempt to intercept, at any place in the Republic, any communication in the course if its occurrence or transmission.”
The above section is also supported by Section 86(1) of the Electronic Communications and Transactions Act 25 of 2002.
The tips mentioned above are only safeguards as it may not always be possible to avoid the use of a public Wi-Fi connection as it can be very convenient, but do not forget the privacy and security risks.
For further information or advice on the topics discussed in this article, please feel free to contact us.
 Section 14 – “Everyone has the right to privacy, which includes the right not to have (d) the privacy of their communications infringed.” – The Constitution of the Republic of South Africa,1996.
 Section 86(1) – “… a person who intentionally accesses and intercepts any data without the authority or permission to do so, is guilt of an offence.”
Article written by Lerato Mlambo & Andrew Marshall.