Public Wi-Fi is rather commonplace. Customers can enjoy Wi-Fi at many places throughout their day: coffee shops, restaurants, airports, hotels, libraries, etc. Many people connect to public Wi-Fi given that it is free and because it saves them from using pricier internet data on their smartphones. So, let’s look at how Wi-Fi and Bluetooth work in order to use them properly and securely.
Types of Signals
Wi-Fi and Bluetooth work by means of radio signals. Wi-Fi signals work at the frequencies of 2.4 GHz or 5 GHz. The current industry standard is 802.11ac, which is way faster of a network than its predecessors and less likely to drop a connection. (Click the following link for more details and comparisons of network predecessors.) The range of 802.11ac networks is around 150 feet (indoors) and 300 feet (outdoors) for the 2.4 GHz band. Essentially, the 2.4 GHz provides better range but lower transmission of data, while 5 GHz offers more limited range but faster data transmission speeds.
Physical obstacles like walls reduce the signal strength and range. Radio signals from other household devices like microwaves can also interfere with wireless networks. The signal works best, then, when the device/computer is close(r) to the Wi-Fi router. Many people will find their phone/laptop works better in the same room where the internet router resides — as opposed to using their device in a distant bedroom — say, on the opposite side of the house. For this reason, placement of the router in the middle part of the house often results for the best, most-equal coverage throughout the house.
Bluetooth is also based upon invisible radio waves, but the signals are for shorter ranges (30 feet) at 2.45 GHz. The transmission power is low, in an effort to save battery power on the device, which helps explain the shorter range of the signals. Bluetooth is slower, too, than Wi-Fi transmission speeds. Whereas Wi-Fi allows a device to connect to the Internet, Bluetooth often allows two devices to connect to each other. Common applications of the technology include linking phones/PCs to headphones, car speakers, baby monitors, printers, etc.
Types of Public Wi-Fi
Wi-Fi networks come in two flavors: secured and unsecured. The secured networks require a password; the majority of networks set up for home internet fit this description. When looking at a list of networks in range of your device, if a little lock pad symbol accompanies the listing, then that symbol denotes it as a secured network. Unsecured networks do not require a password. There is a wrinkle to this discussion: many hospitals, hotels, and coffee shops still offer free Wi-Fi, but they require a sign in process that may require entering an email address or clicking on various legal terms-of-service documentation to use the network.
Cautions against Unsecured Wi-Fi
Given that unsecured networks do not require a password to log in, it is possible that your actions/traffic is visible to anyone else also on the network. Software readily exists to read web traffic if traveling over unsecured networks. In this case, a hacker’s end goal would be to “read” the typed text during the web traffic session in order to steal passwords. If the password is one that you use on multiple sites, then it could compromise quite a bit. Even if you are already logged on to a website, and then connect to public Wi-Fi, a hacker could still steal your cookies in the traffic session and gain access to your passwords.
In this regard, it is never advisable to access personal bank accounts or sensitive personal information on public Wi-Fi. Online shopping may appear innocent enough, but it carries the same cautionary warning, as it includes personal, financial, and retailer login credentials. Even checking your email is not without taking precautions. If your email account is hacked, it basically gives a hacker access to your entire life, as your email is the golden ticket to recover or change passwords to all your accounts. One study found that the average user has an email account attached to 130 other online accounts.
Steps to Take when Using Unsecured Wi-Fi
The safest solution to public Wi-Fi is to use a VPN (virtual private network). By using a VPN, all sent and received data is encrypted between your session and the website(s) that you are visiting. This protects the data from anyone else who might be listening on the same connection. There are both free and paid vendor choices for VPNs. Ironically, free VPNs may, themselves, not be great options, since they have to make money somehow — including selling your information to marketers. If you find yourself using public Wi-Fi frequently, then investing in a good paid VPN product may be worth it. Opera offers a good free VPN option on desktops and laptops within the Opera browser itself; however, they no longer offer a VPN for mobile devices.
Steps to Take when Using Bluetooth
If you do use public Wi-Fi, it is a safe practice to turn off “automatic connectivity.” This prevents random networks from logging on when they are in range. In a similar manner, it is safest to turn off Bluetooth on your phone when in public. Bluetooth is like public Wi-Fi, in that hackers can spy on open Bluetooth signals to gain entry into your phone. Once leaving secure locations, like the home or office, turning off Bluetooth temporarily is a good decision. The controls can be found on devices by going to (Settings --> Connections --> Bluetooth) or by going to (Settings --> Bluetooth). Most devices have a toggle switch (blue is on, gray is off) to denote Bluetooth controls.
That’s all for this post. Please look for our next blog entry on another technology topic.
Hours and Locations
My JCLS Login
Medford Comic Con
Careers at the Library
Friends of the Library