What is free wifi? In this article, we are discussing free wifi: what it is, where you can find it, if it is safe, and ways you can protect yourself while using it.
What is free wifi?
If you are asking this question, perhaps we should first explain what “wifi” is. Wifi is the short way to say “wireless fidelity” ( I bet most people don’t know that). It is another way to say “Wireless Local Area Network” aka “WLAN.” In basic terms, wifi uses radio frequencies, and these frequencies give devices the ability to send signals and information to each other. Most of us know of wifi simply as what needs to be turned on so that we can surf the internet. We also think of it as an access point to the internet.
Thus, FREE wifi is generally what we think of as the ability to get onto the internet with one of our devices without having to pay for it. Free wifi is often found in places where people congregate, such as libraries, coffee shops, hotels, schools, and airports. Many businesses install wifi infrastructure into their businesses and offer wifi as an inducement to encourage customers to come into the business (in the hopes that they will spend money in the shop while taking advantage of the free wifi).
Is free wifi safe to use?
The answer is complicated, and the best I can say is “maybe.” I have written about the concerns I have with public wifi in another recent article. Theoretically, there is nothing unsafe about the concept of free wifi. In general, someone sets up wifi and pays for it, and then either offers it for free, or fails to require a password so anyone can log on if they are within the reach/range of the wifi signal.
But with free wifi, especially wifi that is unprotected by a login and password, comes people who like to take advantage of the free access to the internet, and also of other people. Hackers are drawn to free unprotected wifi, because it allows them to enter the internet and do things (like hack, infect, spy, steal, etc) that they would not want traced back to themselves on their own network at home or at work.
There is the potential of getting hacked or spied on with any network, even your home network. But with a free wifi access point, that risk is increased dramatically because of the number of people who use it, and the fact that there is no login required (in most cases).
In general, a lot of people use free public wifi without fear or worry. I admit to having done it many times, and I will probably continue to do it. But it is definitely more risky than using your home network or sticking with mobile data on your device instead.
How can I protect myself when I use free wifi?
Sometimes using free wifi is necessary. You may not have wifi at home, or you may be required to use it at school or at the library to do what you need to do. In that case, here are a few recommendations:
- Make sure you keep your antivirus software installed and up to date. This will let you know right away if your device has been infected, and can help you resolve the problem quickly before too much damage has been done.
- Shield yourself and your private information while browsing with a VPN. There are many free VPN apps (such as Orbot VPN) that you can try out with your smartphone, and some that you can even utilize while on your desktop.
- Reduce the risks by keeping your private information off the device you are using on the free public wifi network.
- Only visit sites that show an HTTPS in the address bar.
- Send and receive only the information and data necessary on the free wifi network. This means that you should avoid filling out and submitting forms on the internet requiring your full name, date of birth, social security number, bank account numbers, address, phone number, other identifying information, or information that would seriously harm you if it was stolen.
- Disable autoconnect on your device. You should choose carefully the networks you connect to, and some devices are set to search for and connect automatically to the best available network. You may just be walking around with your phone in your pocket without realizing that your phone is connected to all different kinds of networks.
- Practice responsible computing. Do things like change your passwords regularly, and don’t use the same login names and passwords for all of your accounts. Enable two-factor authentication, so that if someone does get your login and password, they will still be denied access because they don’t have access to your cell phone.
What is free wifi hotspot?
A wifi hotspot is just another way to say “a place where you can get access to wifi.” These are places where the wifi is either free or paid, or even password protected. Free wifi hotspots are places where anyone can get access, while others require that you pay a fee or be a customer to have access.
I want to know more about VPNs. What is that?
A VPN is a virtual private network. This can come in the form of an app or a service, free or paid. The options available give you varied protection and services (and some work better than others). But the idea is that when you open up a browser and start going about your business on the internet, your data would be encrypted (meaning scrambled up so that people can’t spy or make use of it if they manage to steal it). VPNs also shield your IP address from anyone who is spying, any website you click on, and from people you send emails to.
If you want to know more about VPNs, check out our VPN post archives.
Do you still have questions about free wifi? Let us know what you need to know in the comments. We can respond there or prepare a separate post to assist you.