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Public Wi-Fi hotspots: food for thought!

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Australians love their public Wi-Fi Hotspots. At 30 June 2015, an average of almost 4.23 million Aussies went online using a public Wi-Fi hotspot. [1]

To help you be informed when using these services, we’ve partnered with Stay Smart Online to give you some helpful tips and general information about public Wi-Fi hotspots in Australia. Click on one of the links below to go straight to a particular topic:

What is a public Wi-Fi hotspot?

What are the major types of public Wi-Fi hotspots in Australia?

What types of access are offered at public Wi-Fi hotspots?

What can I do at a public Wi-Fi hotspot?

How do I find a public Wi-Fi hotspot?

How do I connect to a public Wi-Fi hotspot?

Is a public Wi-Fi hotspot secure?

What are the potential online threats and how can I protect myself when using public Wi-Fi hotspots?

How can I make a complaint about a public Wi-Fi hotspot?

Where can I get more information about public Wi-Fi hotspots?


What is a public Wi-Fi hotspot?

A public W-Fi hotspot is a location, such as a café, offering a Wi-Fi internet connection to people with a suitable device such as a smartphone, tablet, laptop or other Wi-Fi-enabled devices.

The following diagram shows the typical set-up for a public Wi-Fi hotspot:

Public Wi-Fi Hot Spot Image

What are the major types of public Wi-Fi hotspots in Australia?

Type

Description

Example

Large-scale networks

Public infrastructure developments offering widespread Wi-Fi coverage across central locations within towns and cities.

VicGovFreeWiFi

Municipal spaces

Small precincts such as parks, libraries, city centres, tourist attractions, museums or galleries.

State Library of New South Wales

Public transport

Trains, ferries, buses and within transport hubs such as bus interchanges, ferry wharves, and train stations and concourses.

Queensland Rail

Enterprise hotspots

Commercial locations such as shopping centres, food courts, cafes, airports or hospitals.

Perth Airport

Closed (or open) networks

Provided by private organisations, these can be found in similar locations to enterprise hotspots but access is usually restricted to their own customers. To access the hotspot, a user requires a username and password and, in some cases, a payment (fee-for-service).

Internode’s Wireless Internet at the Adelaide Airport

What types of access are offered at public Wi-Fi hotspots?

Operators of public Wi-Fi hotspots typically offer one of the following types of access:

  1. Free and open (no charge to the user and no password is required).
  2. Free with conditions (no charge to the user but subject to certain terms of use).
  3. Free for customers (a purchase from the provider is required before access is allowed).
  4. Fee-for-service (user pays for access).

What can I do at a public Wi-Fi hotspot?

You can surf the web, check your email, connect to your corporate network, use over-the-top (OTT) services such as Skype, play online games, access social networking sites or update your blog.

Anything you’d legally do from your home, office or mobile connection can legally be done at a public Wi-Fi hotspot. However, it’s worth noting that some hotspots may restrict access to certain websites, limit the amount of data you can use or impose session time limits.

How do I find a public Wi-Fi hotspot?

If Wi-Fi is switched on under ‘Settings’ on your device and you’re within range of any public Wi-Fi hotspots (wireless networks), they should automatically appear on your device under the Wi-Fi networks listings. For example, the iPhone screen shot below shows a listing of three nearby networks with the ‘eduroam’ network selected:

Image of iPhone's Wi-Fi screen

Source: https://www.neilturner.me.uk/2013/07/25/how-to-rank-wifi-networks-iphone.html

Networks can be of varying signal strength (typically indicated by the Wi-Fi symbol Wi-Fi Symbol) and those listed with a padlock (Padlock for Secure Internet Connection) next to the name require a password to gain access. Also, once you’ve joined a network it becomes a ‘known network’ and your device may join it automatically next time you’re in its vicinity.

If you’re wanting to find other public Wi-Fi hotspots in Australia, the following links may be useful:

National listings

Carrier listings

State and territory listings

The information contained in the above links may not remain current and should only be used as a guide (as they rely on regular updating by hotspot operators).

How do I connect to a public Wi-Fi hotspot?

The table below has some useful links to instructions on how you can connect to Wi-Fi networks, including public Wi-Fi hotspots (by operating system and type of device you use):

Operating system

Device type

Link to instructions

iOS

iPhone, iPad, iPod touch

https://support.apple.com/en-au/HT202639

iOS

Mac desktop computer and laptop

https://support.apple.com/en-au/HT201735

Android

Smartphone

http://www.dummies.com/how-to/content/how-to-access-wifi-on-an-android-phone.html

Android

Tablet

http://www.dummies.com/how-to/content/how-to-connect-your-android-tablet-to-a-wifi-netwo.html

Windows

Smartphone

http://www.windowsphone.com/en-au/how-to/wp7/start/connect-to-a-wi-fi-network

Windows

Tablet

http://www.dummies.com/how-to/content/how-to-connect-your-windows-8-tablet-to-a-wireless.html

Windows

Personal computer and laptop

http://windows.microsoft.com/en-au/windows/view-connect-available-wireless-networks#1TC=windows-7

If you continue having difficulty connecting to a public Wi-Fi hotspot (or your device type isn’t listed above), refer to the website of your device manufacturer for further information.

Is a public Wi-Fi hotspot secure?

A public Wi-Fi hotspot isn’t required by law to be secure from potential online threats, so it’s best to treat it as unsecured (unless the operator of the hotspot states otherwise). You can usually find this information in the security clause of the ‘terms of use’ that you typically have to agree to before you can use a public Wi-Fi hotspot.

A public Wi-Fi hotspot that’s password-protected and uses Wi-Fi Protected Access 2 (WPA2) encryption and the 802.1x Standard for authentication—which is regarded currently as industry best practice—is considered secure.  

To show how easy it is to hack free Wi-Fi, an ethical hacking demonstration was carried out earlier this year under the supervision of an online security expert in the U.K. What made this demonstration unique (and quite unsettling), was that the hacking was done by a seven-year-old girl who broke into a Wi-Fi hotspot in just 10 minutes and 54 seconds—after watching an online video tutorial. This shows how important it is to use secure public Wi-Fi hotspots whenever you can.

What are the potential online threats and how can I protect myself when using public Wi-Fi hotspots?

Potential online threats

Hotspots may be free and convenient, but you should be aware of the potential online threats when using these services:

Type

Description

Stolen identity

A type of fraud resulting in money being stolen or someone gaining other benefits (or making defamatory comments) by pretending to be you.

Hackers accessing your private information

A third party accessing your private information, who may on-sell it. For example, a third party may sell your email address to spammers.

Risk to your personal safety

If your personal information is accessible and someone decides to secretly monitor your future movements. For example, data from your wearable technology (which tracks information related to your health and fitness) may be inappropriately accessed by a third party and used to monitor your daily exercise routine.

Malware being downloaded to your device

Malware can include viruses, worms, Trojan horses, Spam, Spyware and Botnets.

Your credit card, banking or log-in details being stolen

This could result in financial loss or unauthorised access to your accounts.

These potential online threats may also result from accessing the internet in general. However, you should be more alert to these when using unsecured public Wi-Fi hotspots.

How to protect yourself

To reduce the chance of being harmed (by a potential online threat) when using public Wi-Fi hotspots, the following tips will help protect you:

Tip

Description

Use a password-protected hotspot

Choose a hotspot offering a password-protected connection. If you can find one that uses a unique password for your session, even better.

Check the ‘terms of use’

Also known as ‘conditions of use’, pay particular attention to the following two clauses:

  1. Privacy—check to see what data will be collected about you and how it will be used.
  2. Security—check to see how secure the connection is. Does it use WPA2 encryption and 802.1x Standard for authentication?

If you can’t find this information (or don’t feel comfortable with what you’ve read), speak to the operator of the Wi-Fi hotspot. Alternatively, find a different hotspot to use.

Only use secure connections

When visiting web pages always look for a https (‘s’ stands for secure) in the website address and a padlock (Padlock for Secure Internet Connection) on the web browser.


Avoid using smartphone apps or downloading data from your wearable technology if you’re unsure whether you’re using a secure connection.


For extra security, consider using two-factor authentication for commonly used services such as Twitter, Gmail or Dropbox.



If you have any doubts about whether you’re using a secure connection, don’t undertake your online banking, shopping, or other activities (that could expose your private information) until you’re using a secure home, office or mobile connection.


And even if you’re using a secure connection, avoid using auto-fill for passwords and remember to sign out of the application(s) you’re using.

Turn off file sharing and location services

Consider turning off file sharing on your laptop. If you have file sharing turned on (and your firewall is configured to allow file sharing) and you connect to a public Wi-Fi hotspot, your files may be accessed by others using the same hotspot.


Consider disabling location services on your mobile device so your whereabouts isn’t available on Facebook or other apps.

Consider using  a Virtual Private Network

If you have concerns about your privacy and security when using a public Wi-Fi hotspot, then a Virtual Private Network (VPN) may be for you.


A VPN (free or paid) for your device boosts security (and privacy) by encrypting your communications and internet activity when using an unsecured public network, for example a public Wi-Fi hotspot.


It’s worth noting that even if you use a VPN, online copyright and illegal content laws still apply. So make sure you don’t use it to access content you shouldn’t.


Also be aware that free VPN providers are more likely to log your activities and serve contextualised ads while you’re connected.

Connect to the intended Wi-Fi hotspot

Be sure to confirm the ‘official’ Wi-Fi hotspot name from venue staff and manually connect your device to it (that is, don’t let your device automatically connect to the first wireless hotspot in its list).


Can you spot the difference?

Say you’re at an airport waiting for a flight. You decide to take advantage of the free Wi-Fi but there are a number of similarly-named hotspots to choose from. You choose ‘AirportFreeWi-Fi’, unaware that it’s a rogue Wi-Fi hotspot (an ‘evil twin’) set up by a hacker.


The official airport Wi-Fi hotspot is ‘AirportFreeWiFi’.

Notice the subtle difference? It’s easy to miss if you automatically connect to a rogue hotspot. So carefully check the name of the legitimate Wi-Fi hotspot before connecting to it.



Always remember to disconnect from the hotspot after you’ve finished using it.

Turn on your firewall and virus scanner

Firewalls are designed to prevent unauthorised access. A software-based firewall on a device protects it from outside attempts to control or gain access to it. It should be noted that some devices have built-in firewalls (that are always on), others can be turned on or off, and there are various firewall apps available. Be sure to check your device and turn on its firewall (if applicable).


A virus scanner is a program designed to search, identify and remove various types of online threats (e.g. malware) that can be unintentionally downloaded to your device. There are various virus scanning or antivirus software and apps available (free and paid). Sites such as tomsguide.com and toptenreviews.com are good starting points for reading reviews on antivirus software and apps.


And remember to keep your operating system, internet web browser and applications up-to-date on your device. (But, don’t do this at a public Wi-Fi hotspot, wait until you’re using a secure and fast network connection with sufficient data download capability).

Hotspots infographic

Co-developed by the ACMA and Stay Smart Online, see our infographic on the ways to protect yourself when using public Wi-Fi hotspots.

How can I make a complaint about a public Wi-Fi hotspot?

The type of complaint you have will determine who is best to deal with it.

Wi-Fi hotspots complaint process 

Accessible version

This image is also available as an accessible word document. Australian Cybercrime Online Reporting Network Office of the Australian Information Commissioner contact TIO member

Where can I get more information about public Wi-Fi hotspots?


[1] Aged 14 plus in an average three-month period to 30 June 2015, Roy Morgan Single Source.

Last updated: 17 June 2016

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