Why Public Wi-Fi Can Be Dangerous (& Why You Should Use Your Mobile Phone as a Hotspot)

You’re sitting at an airport terminal and want to do some quick law firm work. You whip out the laptop, scan the wireless networks and bingo! there’s a wi-fi network available called “Airport Terminal Free Public Wifi”. But before you connect, consider that you may be walking into a hacker’s trap.

A hacker sitting in the same area can be operating the wi-fi network with an inexpensive hotspot device. If you connect to the hacker’s wi-fi network, the hacker may be able to snoop in and see what you’re doing online. It doesn’t matter if you’re at a coffee shop, hotel, airport, or office building. There’s nothing to stop the hacker from naming the network to something legitimate-sounding, such as “Starbucks – Free Wifi” or “Pearson Terminal 1 – Public” or “Hilton Hotel – Free” to lure you in. It’s all part of the deception.

Even if you actually connect to a public wi-fi network, you still run the risk of hackers snooping into unencrypted network traffic, especially if the network does not require a password from you to connect to it. The unencrypted communications pipe can be leaky, and a hacker can potentially see communication between you and a website or you and an app (such as practice management software) that connects to the internet. Using encrypted websites with an address that starts with “https” (the “s” at the end stands for secure) adds an extra layer of security. A virtual private network (VPN) is typically encrypted from end to end and considered even more secure. It also helps to learn about the cloud service or app you are using – the user agreement should inform you about the extent to which the service is encrypted.

What should you do if you need to do law firm work over the internet and you can’t use public wi-fi? A safer alternative is to use your cell phone as a wi-fi hotspot and connect your laptop to it. You’ll have to pay for the data usage but at least you know the provenance of the connection.

Ian Hu (@IanHuLawpro)



  1. I agree that connecting to public wifi has an associated risk security but you know, it’s free wifi. Who can possibly fight the urge to connect?

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