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BEACON Senior News

Is public Wi-Fi safe?

May 29, 2024 03:00PM ● By Adam Cochran

This month’s topic stems from a question raised by a reader regarding the security of connecting to public Wi-Fi.

Susan wrote, “Is it secure enough to make online purchases using my credit card while at the library computer lab, especially if the card is already stored in my online account with the particular store?”

Additionally, she posed another good question: “When they caution us that others can view, does that mean only those in the library at the time I am using it, or is it the entire library district?”

While my response to Susan addressed her specific circumstances and Wi-Fi location, these questions are relevant for anyone who travels and connects to public Wi-Fi with their phone, laptop or tablet.


Computer security advice is like hairstyles: people cling to outdated practices without realizing the world has moved on. Obsolete or outdated advice about computer security includes:

  • Never connect to public Wi-Fi
  • Never use your credit card or usernames and passwords over public Wi-Fi
  • Never store your passwords in your browser
  • Make all your passwords extremely complicated with lots of special characters

While adhering to all of the above will keep you safe, they won’t necessarily provide greater protection than if you didn’t follow them. While the recommended approach to using public Wi-Fi is to refrain from using credit cards or sharing personal data, this advice is often deemed obsolete in most cases—but not all.

Windows, MacOS, Firefox, Google, Chrome, iPhone and Android all have built-in encryption security to scramble your personal information when you’re connected to secure websites, even on unsecure networks.

When you use a username and password on a website starting with “https://” (make sure there’s an “s” at the end), you’re virtually guaranteed to be safe from unauthorized access to your private data while using public Wi-Fi.

While there are bad guys who attempt to intercept unsecured information on public Wi-Fi networks, they would typically need to be physically present and actively retrieving data as it is sent and received. It’s difficult to monitor Wi-Fi data inconspicuously. Plus, the hardware and software firewalls built in to Wi-Fi equipment typically block any average user from being able to monitor data and traffic.


One of the best security practices is to utilize your browser’s built-in feature to save usernames and passwords. You can do this on your tablet or phone as well. However, don’t ever give anyone the username or password for the device or website where that data is stored. 

The advantage of having your computer browser or a website remember your user and credit card information lies in encryption.

For instance, if your credit card number is stored on Amazon, the platform simply verifies the validity of the card on file, facilitating transactions with sellers without divulging any credit card or personal information.

Instead of transmitting individual chunks of personal or credit card information, any data stored within the browser or website gets converted into a complex string of mathematical voodoo that even the government can’t crack. 


Another noteworthy change in security advice pertains to passwords themselves. 

While incorporating numbers or special characters into passwords is typically safer than not using them, the complexity of the password is less important than its randomness.

In other words, “B3ac0N_NeWz!” isn’t any more secure than “YellowWagonHands5!” The best advice for passwords is to keep them random, but easy to remember. 

Bad guys will try all of the predictable passwords, but the vast array of word combinations, combined with case sensitivity and special characters, provides endless possibilities. The complicated randomization of individual characters is unnecessary.

The best internet security advice would be to abstain from using the internet altogether, much like the best road safety advice would be to avoid traveling by vehicle. However, just like any innovation in safety, technology is continually progressing. Once deemed essential precautions may now hinder efficiency or even make you more vulnerable to perceived threats.

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