- Airport WiFi networks are far less safe or secure than your network at home and should be used with caution.
- The free WiFi at airports is generally unencrypted and can be easily faked with networks that have similar names.
- Here are five important ways to keep your data safe when using WiFi at an airport.
While all sorts of people use airport WiFi on a daily basis, these networks are not especially safe or secure.
Here’s what you need to know about the relative safety of airport WiFi and common sense precautions you should take to keep your data secure.
Airport WiFi is not safe or secure by default
Most airport WiFi networks are adequate for simple tasks like general web browsing and using email. But when it comes to cybersecurity, that’s faint praise, and there’s a lot more to the story.
Airport WiFi is no different than any other public WiFi network, which means these networks are far less secure than your home WiFi and should be used with caution.
“Most airports in the US and overseas offer free WiFi to passengers stranded in the terminal waiting for their flight,” says Kumar Abhishek, a machine learning engineer at Expedia, who specializes in fraud detection and prevention. “While the service may seem widespread and convenient, one should use airport WiFi sparingly.”
Worse, if you’re not careful, you can accidentally connect to a WiFi network that looks like the airport network — but isn’t.
“This so-called evil twin attack happens when a fraudulent network has a name that’s similar to the legitimate airport network,” says Abhishek. Your data can be trapped and compromised as it passes through a hacker’s system. There’s also the risk of
, which can happen if you connect to a fake or unsecured network and then browse to an infected website.
How to keep your data safe when using airport WiFi
While these are valid concerns, some common sense precautions and a healthy dose of prudent web browsing can keep you safe the next time you fly.
Double-check the official airport WiFi network name
The first risk when connecting to a WiFi network at the airport is to make sure you avoid the fake ones and connect to the airport’s official network. The good news: Most airports advertise their network names prominently throughout boarding areas on posters, placards, and countertop cards. “Look closely at the network name and compare it to posted signs or the official network listed on the airport’s website,” advises John Li, a cybersecurity expert who is the cofounder and CTO of Fig Loans.
Be sure you’re using antimalware software
Protection starts at home, so make sure you’re running antimalware or antivirus software on your computer, especially if you’re using a laptop. There are fewer concerns about malware on smartphones and tablets, and you shouldn’t need to install any antimalware software on those mobile devices. But no matter what device you’re using, be sure you have the latest system updates installed.
Switch to cellular data for handling personal data
The best way to stay safe from public WiFi networks is to avoid using them entirely. Many security experts suggest simply not connecting to the free public airport network: “Airport WiFi is generally not very safe, so I advise against using it,” says Kristen Bolig, CEO of SecurityNerd. “Connecting to any WiFi could pose cybersecurity issues.”
A sensible compromise is to avoid using public WiFi for anything that requires sending personal information. If you absolutely must use a finance site or some other site that requires transmitting personal information while at the airport, disconnect from the WiFi and use your cellular data as a mobile hotspot for that instead. As Abhishek suggests, “As much as possible, keep your WiFi turned off. And forget the airport’s WiFi network when you are done, so you can’t connect to the network without your explicit permission.”
Turn off file and printer sharing
If you’re on a public network and your computer is still configured as if you’re on a secure WiFi network at home, you risk exposing personal data to others on the network, who can possibly even download it to their own computers. The solution? Turn off file and printer sharing when at the airport. To do that in Windows, open the Control Panel and click View network status and tasks. Then click Change advanced sharing settings and select Turn off file and printer sharing. Save your changes.
Use a VPN
Many people are worried that dealing with a virtual private network is complicated and difficult, but running VPN software on your laptop is one of the most effective ways to ensure your security when on a WiFi network, whether at the airport or elsewhere. According to Stefan Smulders, cybersecurity expert and CEO of Expandi, “The best way to protect your privacy nowadays is, without a doubt, to use a
every time you navigate the web while traveling for business. VPNs keep you safe from all kinds of online threats. Using a VPN becomes even more crucial if you regularly find yourself using public WiFi networks.”