As the technology around us keeps progressing, and as more and more of our sensitive data shifts online, it is becoming increasingly difficult – even for those who know their technology well – to make sure that their data doesn’t get tracked by third parties without their consent.
It feels like new threats to privacy and data security keep popping up by the day, and we have no choice but to stand true to the challenge and do our due diligence to keep ourselves up to date on the fundamentals of data security.
Luckily for you, we are here to help you in your journey to educate yourself on the different ways you can safeguard your sensitive data and stop third parties from mining it away without your consent.
Today, we will discuss one of the sneaky little ways third parties get a hold of what you’re doing online and how you can put a stop to it.
Can Wi-Fi Owners See My Search History if I Use Their Internet?
Don’t you love it when you have free access to Wi-Fi wherever you go? Whether at a restaurant, school, work, hospital, or even a friend’s house, it’s always nice to be able to connect instantly to the internet – especially when you don’t have to pay anything for it.
Unfortunately, even free public Wi-Fi comes with a cost; you don’t know about.
When you’re connected to somebody else’s Wi-Fi, everything you do online is registered in their Wi-Fi router. This device keeps records of the web pages you visit and what you do on them.
These Wi-Fi owners (if they want to) can access this information and see the search history and other online activities that each connected device has performed. This is especially troubling for people who work with sensitive information using public Wi-Fi and those who try hard to ensure that third parties never get a hold of their data.
By connecting to someone else’s Wi-Fi without taking the right precautions (discussed below), you’re essentially handing them your private information on a silver platter.
This is especially true in the case of websites with the HTTP protocol. Browsing on such websites while connected to someone else’s internet means that the owner can see exactly what you did on each webpage you visited – including any text messages, images, videos, or voice messages you sent through those sites.
This issue exists to a lesser degree for websites with the HTTPS protocol – the owner will only be able to see which sites you visited, not your activity on these sites.
What About Incognito?
Many of you might be wondering whether searching stuff up using incognito could help this issue. Unfortunately, it doesn’t. The incognito mode on your browser only prevents you from recording your activity over the internet, not the network you’re connected to.
This means that even when you use incognito mode while connected to a public Wi-Fi, the Wi-Fi’s owner, the ISP, and the third-party apps and websites you visit can still see and record what you’re doing online.
Additionally, Wi-Fi owners can see much more data about your online activities if they use a public DNS resolver (more on this later).
What Exactly Can They See?
For simplicity, we’ve been pretty vague about what exactly it is that Wi-Fi owners and ISPs can track while you’re connected to their internet. In this section, we will concretely enlist everything that these parties will be able to track.
Below is a list of things that both of these parties can track without any special equipment/service activation:
- The websites you visit as well as their URLs
- The time you spend on each site you visit
- The time stamps of when you connected (and disconnected) to the Wi-Fi
- Your IP addresses
This list extends further if you use your phone to connect to a public Wi-Fi. These additional items are:
- Your call logs – this includes all calls you’ve made using the internet while connected to their Wi-Fi
- App log – all apps you’ve visited while connected to their Wi-Fi
- Message logs – all the people you texted over the internet
If any of these contain sensitive information, i.e., related to your accounts/ passwords, you could get in serious trouble if the owner decides to exploit this data.
The Four Greatest Privacy Issues of Using Public Wi-Fi
In addition to risking having all of the information mentioned above leaked about your online activities, you also face the threat of these four privacy issues while connected to a public Wi-Fi.
Since many people are connected to public Wi-Fi simultaneously, there is a lot of anonymity in terms of who you’re sharing a connection.
There is always a risk that a hacker is connected to the same public Wi-Fi as you, leaving you prone to whichever cyber attack they choose to throw your way.
When you’re logged onto a public Wi-Fi, your device becomes visible to the owner of that network. This means that, if the owner wants, they can access crucial private information about you while your connection is maintained to their device.
Additionally, any hackers in proximity will be able to detect your device and conduct any form of a cyber attack on your data they want.
If you own a public Wi-Fi, you run the risk of facilitating hackers conducting cyber-attacks. Think about it, since anyone can log onto your network and use it to do whatever they want, any hacker can use your connection to conduct their attacks.
This will mean that your network will be investigated in the case where any law enforcement agency gets involved.
If you’re connected to someone’s Wi-Fi via a shared connection, the owner will be able to see all of your online activity and harvest that data for their benefit without your knowledge or consent.
Additionally, any hackers connected to the network will be able to mine the data of everyone connected to the shared network.
Why Should I Care?
Many people don’t seem to care whether someone tries to monitor their activities online. This is mainly because they don’t fully understand how much damage can be done to them if these third parties misuse their data.
In this section, we will look at some concrete reasons why you should take the security of your private data more seriously.
It is essential to ensure no one is monitoring your search history, not just because it gives away private information about your whereabouts online but also because spying parties can potentially look at your chats, calls, images, and videos online.
This means that your private conversations could easily get leaked and used against you.
This problem amplifies if you share your bank, social media, email, and other apps’ credentials through online conversations. Hackers could note your credentials and use them to hijack your social media or drain your bank account.
So, unless you have an infinite supply of money, you should get serious about protecting your data.
Now admittedly, with the digital security measures that banks take, it is unlikely that someone will be able to access your bank account (although it is still possible), but remember, they can still find out about what you do with your money and see where you spend it.
Getting into others’ social media apps is a piece of cake for hackers; they can easily leak your personal chats or media to humiliate you, get you into trouble, or even blackmail you.
How Do I Browse Securely Over Public Wi-Fi?
What now? How can we protect ourselves from the unknown risks that public Wi-Fi exposes us to? Well, we use a VPN, of course.
VPNs are one of the most popular ways to hide your browsing activities from your device. When connecting to a public Wi-Fi, you should always ensure you are connected to a good VPN service to protect your data, such as Private Internet Access.
VPNs work by sending and receiving packets of data through encryption. They send and receive requests over servers that are located well beyond your region, which means that any cyber-attacker trying to target you won’t be able to see what you did online. In addition, you can also use VPNs to access webpages and services online that wouldn’t otherwise be available in your region.
VPNs also secure your data by temporarily modifying the IP address of your device. This means that the owner’s network will not be able to figure out which device you’re using – hence protecting your data.
VPNs are so powerful and effective that they’ll even secure your data against hackers who keep an eye on unsecured Wi-Fi networks for people to prey on.
To further solidify your data security, you should also consider subscribing to an anti-malware/anti-virus service. This helps build extra walls for hackers to take down before they can reach your personal data.
VPNs & DNS leaks
You should be careful about which VPN service you subscribe to – as with anything, some are much better than others. However, if you don’t pick a good VPN service, you risk falling victim to a DNS leak.
These are basically leaks that occur when your DNS (what you search for) leaks out of the VPN tunnel. When this happens, public Wi-Fi owners and other third parties are able to mine your data. To check how well your VPN handles DNS leaks, check it through online DNS leak assessment tools such as the DNS leak test.
Now that you know what risks you’re exposed to while connected to a public Wi-Fi, take the appropriate measures to safeguard your data online. The main points to take away from this discussion are:
- You need to realize the importance of keeping yourself up to date with all the threats to your privacy online.
- Using a public Wi-Fi with no security measures can prove catastrophic for your privacy if the owner (or any connected third party) decides to misuse your data.
- Always use VPN, Antivirus, and anti-malware services to protect your data from third parties online.