Many of you will already be accustomed to kicking back and drinking a cup of coffee, all while checking emails and catching up on the news all for free using the café or restaurant’s hotspot. But what has been part of everyday life in many countries for years now isn’t common yet here in Germany. Being able to do all this is why free hotspots are such a magnet when on the move, particularly when on holiday. But in Germany too, these havens of surfing activity are becoming an ever more common sight. This is because Germany’s grand coalition has agreed to do away with what the German’s call Störerhaftung, or “interference liability”. This means that anyone will be able to make their Wi-Fi network open to the public without needing to fear being charged for infringing third-party rights. So, does this now signal that the road ahead is clear for free hotspots across Germany? And everything’s great? Unfortunately not. This is because public hotspots that don’t require a password also pose a new type of threat.
Free but risky
Free Wi-Fi access without the need to enter any passwords isn’t just a gold mine for surfers; it’s also an easy target for hackers and cyber criminals. Taking a quick look at the weather, catching up on the latest news, or planning a trip aren’t the problem – it’s not even the end of the world if you catch someone looking over your shoulder. However, things get tricky when personal data starts flying around. This is basically what happens with any service that requires you to log in to use it, such as WhatsApp, Facebook, cloud services, and above all, online banking.
As open as a barnyard door
Open, unencrypted Wi-Fi networks are practically like an open invitation to hackers to go phishing for private information such as login credentials This is because, compared to private home networks, surfers aren’t the only ones using public hotspots. If hackers log in to the same network as them, it is easy for hackers to snoop on and manipulate the data traffic. And they don’t even need to be specialists, as the technical lengths they have to go to are laughably small. Anyone can download tools that have been programmed specifically for this purpose. Here’s another trick: The hacker sets up his/her own hotspot and waits for the victim to sign in. This makes it even easier for the hacker to snoop on the data traffic as everything runs over his/her router.
A threat that’s difficult to spot
The problem for the user is that it’s impossible to tell at a glance whether the public hotspot is secure and when it’s best not to log in. Serious sounding Wi-Fi notices are no guarantee of security whatsoever as ultimately even the crooks can give their hotspot the same name as the café or restaurant. Even the seemingly secure process of logging in using an email address and password says nothing about the network’s security. So, is it best to avoid free Wi-Fi hotspots? Is the risk too great?
No. If you can’t tell if a hotspot is unsafe, the best thing is to make sure your device is armed with the right protection. At the very least (unless you have an iOS device) you should be using the latest operating system release, your browser should be fully updated, and your antivirus program should be up to date. While you should generally make sure this is the case whenever you go online, the best protection comes in the form of a VPN connection. This is a service that establishes a specially secured data tunnel to the VPN provider’s server – all at the press of a button. This then anonymizes all internet activities and makes your data immune to any form of attack. While it sounds complicated, it’s actually really straightforward in practice. The tools available include free Avira Phantom VPN. Beyond that, make use of our security tips and enjoy surfing third-party networks with complete peace of mind.
The top 5 security tips for public hotspots
- Be wary: If you’ve connected to a public hotspot using your smartphone, tablet, or notebook, you have to expect that the data traffic will be snooped on by third parties. So, never enter any private information – unless you’re using special security precautions such as a VPN tunnel.
- Disable your Wi-Fi connection automatically: It’s child’s play for hackers to set up their own hotspots. As smartphones can, under certain circumstances, join nearby unencrypted wireless networks automatically, it’s best to disable this setting in your smartphone.
- Best to ask: Do multiple names that sound similar to the location you’re at appear in your list of Wi-Fi connections? Then ask an employee which one you should connect to. This is because hackers like setting up hotspot traps with names that lure in victims.
- Pay attention to your surroundings: Criminals don’t just like snooping on your information via hotspots. If you’re not careful, someone nearby could be spying on you as you enter your login credentials. So, be sure nobody is looking over your shoulder.
- Close apps you’re not using: Many apps go online automatically in the background if there’s an internet connection. So, the fewer you’ve got running, the less opportunity there is for hackers to strike.