Is it safe to use coffee shop wi-fi?
We started with a simple question:
Is it safe to use coffee shop wi-fi?
So after all that, is it? Using this guide, you should be able to find an answer you feel confident in. And hopefully that answer is “yes.”
Let’s walk through it, step by step—and look at some of the technical reasons you can feel safe, too.
Starbucks can be productive, but not for hackers
First, starting with the last section, we know it’s not super clear what the most common types of attacks are.
However, looking back one more section, to Will I even be hacked?, we know that most hackers are looking for money wherever they can find it (although some people need to get additional help if they’re being targeted).
That lets us make educated guesses about how they’ll try to get it.
For example, like the last section asks, does it makes more sense for a hacker to camp at your local Starbucks hoping to steal passwords from nearby customers (assuming that’s even possible), or to spend that time sending thousands of phishing emails instead?
Also, you can probably guess that certain locations—like airports or army bases or the Ritz-Carlton—might be more valuable to hackers than others—like Grandma’s house or the Subway off of exit 39.
Secure for me or secure for you?
Looking back even further, to What is security?, gives an even clearer answer, too. What’s secure for me may not be secure for you.
Forgetting about passwords and credit cards for a second, I don’t like having phone calls in public. I dislike people hearing my private conversations. If you’re like me, then, you’d probably avoid talking on the phone at a Starbucks—but some people don’t care about that! Security—and what you want to keep secure—is extremely personal, and it’s up to you to decide what you care about.
You might be right to avoid coffee shop wi-fi—depending on what’s important to you:
Do you worry that the shop will spam you because you have to give them your email address to access the wi-fi? You should probably avoid the wi-fi!
But are you mostly worried about someone eavesdropping on you (the concern I see most discussed(A NortonLifeLock employee, n.d.))? Then the wi-fi is probably safe!
And that takes us back to the very beginning of this guide, where I claimed that this guide is different because it doesn’t just offer blind advice. Everyone cares about different things, and advice should reflect that.
Of course, you should also probably look over your shoulder to make sure nobody just reads your password as you type it, no matter what you think is important.
Modern laws & Internet technology also keeps you safe
There are also technical and legal reasons to feel safe.
For what it’s worth, it is dangerous to send personal information and passwords over the Internet without protecting them somehow—even if it’s incredibly unlikely that hackers are waiting to view your passwords.
But that’s where the engineers and lawmakers come in.
Engineers across the world have worked their entire lives to build systems that are secure by default—with no interaction from you: most Internet traffic is encrypted with HTTPS, many text messages are encrypted automatically, and your phones and computers do tons of stuff behind the scenes to protect you. And, like we discussed in the last section, it’s actually pretty difficult to lose money to fraud, thanks to good laws.
If you want to learn more, What is HTTPS? explains HTTPS, the protocol that keeps the Internet secure.
As you finish up this guide, you know what security is, what hackers want from you, and how they try to get it. I believe that with that information—and maybe a bit of technical knowledge, like how HTTPS helps you stay safe—you can make rational decisions and determine for yourself if coffee shop wi-fi is safe.
You know how hackers use the Internet, and you know a bit about HTTPS and other technologies that keep you safe. It’s extremely unlikely that you will be hacked for sending some email on Caribou Coffee wi-fi, unless you know of someone specifically targeting you.
In short, I think coffee shop wi-fi is safe. What do you think?