Editor's Note: This story originally appeared on Forbes Advisor.
Public Wi-Fi is widely available, but it can also come with security risks.
With so many people relying on public Wi-Fi networks to stay connected on the go, it’s important to understand the dangers and take precautions to protect your personal information. Our study found that 40% of respondents had their information compromised while using public Wi-Fi.
We’ll dive into the risks of using public Wi-Fi, where people are using it and what you can do to keep your information secure.
The Reasons People Use Public Wi-Fi
- A last resort when I don’t have a cellular connection: 32%
- Social media: 29%:
- Make calls via an app (e.g., Facetime, WhatsApp, Line, etc.): 28%
- Use the internet while traveling internationally: 27%
- Cut down on cellular data usage: 23%
- Stream content: 23%
- It’s better than my home Wi-Fi connection: 23%
- Work remotely: 21%
- Play video games: 21%
- Make financial transactions: 20%
- Studying: 19%
Our recent survey found people use public Wi-Fi for many reasons, including as a last resort when they don’t have a cell connection, to surf social media, to make calls via apps such as WhatsApp and FaceTime, while traveling internationally, to save on cell data usage, to stream content such as YouTube or Netflix, because it’s better than their home Wi-Fi, for remote work, to play video games, to make financial transactions and for studying.
This shows that public Wi-Fi is widely used for both leisure and work activities, demonstrating the reliance on Wi-Fi networks to stay connected. Just 20% of survey respondents say they use public Wi-Fi for financial transactions.
Whether this is because of data privacy concerns or the potential for hacking and theft is up for interpretation. Either way, using public Wi-Fi for any kind of sensitive information is risky if you don’t take the proper precautions.
Most Common Places People Use Public Wi-Fi
- Cafe or restaurant: 38.0%
- Hotel: 38.0%
- Library: 33.0%
- Airport: 32.0%
- Retail store: 31.0%
- School: 30.0%
- Public transportation: 29.0%
- Traveling internationally: 29.0%
According to our survey, people most commonly use public Wi-Fi in cafes and restaurants (38%), hotels (38%) and libraries (33%). This suggests many people rely on public Wi-Fi while on the go and need a quick and convenient connection.
It’s interesting to note that nearly a third of respondents use public Wi-Fi in the airport, which can be a vulnerable time for travelers who may be accessing sensitive information, such as flight itineraries or passport numbers. Retail stores (31%) and schools (30%) also made the list, showing that people are increasingly relying on public Wi-Fi in a variety of settings.
Only 23% of People Think Public Wi-Fi Is Safe
- Not sure: 9%
- Not safe at all: 5%
- Somewhat unsafe: 20%
- Completely safe: 23%
- Somewhat safe: 43%
According to our survey, a large majority of respondents, 43%, believe public Wi-Fi is somewhat safe while a smaller percentage, 23%, believe it is completely safe.
However, a significant portion of respondents, 20%, consider public Wi-Fi somewhat unsafe and 5% consider it not safe at all. This highlights the mixed perception of the security of public Wi-Fi and the need for more education and awareness of the potential risks and ways to protect personal information while using it.
It’s concerning that 9% of respondents are unsure about the safety of public Wi-Fi, suggesting a need for more information and resources to help users make informed decisions about using these networks, especially when considering what types of networks they connect to.
We asked our survey takers whether they connect to public Wi-Fi requiring passwords. The majority of people (56%) connect to public Wi-Fi networks that don’t require a password, while 44% connect to networks that do. This highlights a divide between those who prioritize convenience and those who prioritize security.
Sure, connecting to a network that doesn’t require a password is certainly more convenient, as users can simply log on without having to ask for or remember a password.
However, networks without passwords are often less secure, as they can be easily accessed by anyone within range, including potential hackers who park themselves at public Wi-Fi locations for the sole purpose of harvesting private data from unsuspecting users. It’s important for individuals to weigh their need for convenience against their need for security when deciding which public Wi-Fi networks to connect to.
Where People Think Public Wi-Fi Is the Most Unsecure
- Airport: 46%
- Cafe or restaurant: 45%
- Public transportation: 39%
- Hotel: 33%
- Library: 31%
- Retail store: 28%
- School: 12%
According to our survey, the riskiest places to use public Wi-Fi, as perceived by the respondents, are hotels, airports, and cafes or restaurants. These places saw a considerable increase in their perceived riskiness compared to other locations. Schools were seen as relatively low-risk places to connect to public Wi-Fi.
Additionally, some respondents were uncertain about the riskiness of public Wi-Fi, while a small percentage did not believe that any place was particularly risky. These findings highlight the need for users to be vigilant about their online security, regardless of where they connect to public Wi-Fi.
43% Have Had Their Online Security Compromised While Using Public Wi-Fi
One of the biggest risks associated with using public Wi-Fi is that it can be unsecured and vulnerable to attack. Hackers can use this vulnerability to steal your personal information or install malicious software on your devices without you knowing.
Imagine this scenario; you’re on a business trip overseas and your credit card gets declined because you forgot to let your bank know you’re traveling. You don’t have reception, but the restaurant you’re at has free Wi-Fi. You log in and update your bank, but you forgot to secure the connection.
A hacker is now able to watch all of your online activity and gain access to passwords, banking information, or even worse.
The best way to protect yourself when using public Wi-Fi is by ensuring it’s a secured network with encryption technology. Make sure you use a strong password on your devices and consider using a virtual private network (VPN) when you’re connected to public Wi-Fi.
A VPN encrypts all the data sent between your device and the router, making it harder for hackers to access your data. You should also avoid visiting sites that require you to enter personal information such as passwords or credit card numbers.
Where People Have Had Their Online Security Compromised While Using Public Wi-Fi
- Cafe or restaurant: 25%
- Airport: 23%
- Hotel: 20%
- Fast food restaurant: 19%
- Library: 19%
- Public transportation: 17%
- Retail store: 12%
- School: 9%
- Traveling internationally: 5%
The results from the survey show that public Wi-Fi usage while traveling seems to pose a higher risk to online security compared to usage at fixed locations. Out of the responders who have had their online security compromised while using public Wi-Fi, the highest percentage, 23%, reported it happened at the airport.
Similarly, 20% had it happen at a hotel, and 25% at a cafe or restaurant. The percentage of respondents who reported having their online security compromised while using public Wi-Fi at a retail store or school was relatively low, at 12% and 9% respectively. This could suggest that it may be safer to use public Wi-Fi at these locations compared to other places.
40% of People Use a VPN When on Public Wi-Fi
Forty percent of survey takers use a VPN while using public Wi-Fi, while 60% don’t. Whether this is because respondents are unaware of the inherent risks of using public Wi-Fi without a VPN, or simply because the convenience of not having to use a VPN outweighs the risks, is unclear.
This also suggests that a significant portion of people are aware of the security risks associated with public Wi-Fi and are taking steps to protect their personal information by using a VPN. Though, there is still a large group of people who are not aware of or actively choosing to ignore the risks.
The importance of educating users on how to stay safe when using public Wi-Fi should not be understated and more needs to be done.
Businesses can help do their part to protect their patrons. Those offering public Wi-Fi networks must have access to controls and security measures in place to protect their networks from intrusion. This means having appropriate firewalls and encryption protocols that prevent hackers from gaining access to the network or any user data that passes through it.
Businesses should also ensure they’re keeping their networks up to date with the latest security patches, as well as providing users with simple instructions on how to protect their information while connected.
According to our survey, 40% of survey takers use a VPN while on public Wi-Fi. Among them, the majority (35%) reported that they always use a VPN, while 26% use it often, and 34% use it sometimes. Only a small minority (4%) use a VPN rarely or never. These findings suggest that most users prioritize their security when accessing public networks.
While public Wi-Fi is a widely used convenience, it’s also associated with risks that can compromise your personal and business information.
With an increasing number of people relying on public Wi-Fi networks, understanding the dangers and taking precautions to protect data is critical. Our survey results show that there is a high percentage of individuals who’ve had their online security compromised while using public Wi-Fi.
Considering these risks, it’s worth looking into getting a VPN to encrypt internet traffic and keep one’s identity—and data—hidden.
To understand how Americans are using public Wi-Fi, Forbes Advisor commissioned a survey of 2,000 employed Americans who regularly use public Wi-Fi by market research company OnePoll, in accordance with the Market Research Society’s code of conduct.
The margin of error is plus or minus 2.2 points with 95% confidence. The OnePoll research team is a member of the MRS and has corporate membership with the American Association for Public Opinion Research (AAPOR).
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