We asked: is it safe to use coffee shop wi-fi? But we really have a larger question:
“Am I safe when I use the Internet today?”
Depending where you look, you’ll get different answers. Security experts will probably tell you that everything is broken and everyone is hackable. Security companies will tell you the same thing, but then tell you their product will fix it.
Just like I wrote in the introduction and the last section, I believe it is probably safe to use coffee shop wi-fi. And I think it’s straightforward to stay safe on the Internet today.
Tying it all together
After explaining how this guide is different (it asks you to learn about security in a way that lets you make predictions), we dove into some big questions:
- We explored what it means to be secure—and why typical security advice feels so unsatisfying.
- We asked whether or not random people are likely to be hacked—and learned that most people are at risk, because hackers look for money indiscriminately. We also noted that some people may need to get additional help, if they know of specific people trying to hack them.
- We looked into how people are likely to be hacked—or, at least, we tried to. We learned that there are huge information gaps that make it hard to feel safe.
- Finally, we asked, “is it safe to use coffee shop wi-fi?”—and applied the other sections (and some technical knowledge) to understand our answer.
Hopefully, these sections gave you a clear-eyed answer to each question.
What’s with all the negativity?
Hopefully, the answers helped you feel optimistic about security.
True, we don’t have complete data about consumer threats. True, security is complicated. True, new attacks are always coming out, people keep posting their credit card numbers on Twitter(Greenberg, 2012), and hackers make tons of money.
Our information has its flaws. Public wi-fi and HTTPS and all our technologies do, too. Skeptics are quick to point those out. But the information and tools we have today are so much better than nothing at all.
Seatbelts or bulletproof vests
There are loads of people who will try to tell you you’re stupid, or you’re missing some vital information, or who will ask you to follow advice without thinking about it. But in How will I be hacked?, we pointed out something important: a bulletproof vest and a seatbelt both measurably save lives. Only one of those things will help most people.
When someone offers security advice, are they telling you to wear a seatbelt or a bulletproof vest?
Good security practices might be unnecessary most of the time. After all, Aunt Matilda’s password is
abc123, and no one’s stolen her money yet! This guide may indeed be a bulletproof vest.
But hopefully, this guide gave you the tools to understand that. And that’s all I can hope for.
Good enough to get to the moon
Security experts understand all of these nuances, even if they don’t always communicate them well. They know that security isn’t perfect, and they know that everyone is at risk. They know that our knowledge is flawed and incomplete, but they know that we can still find and address big problems anyway.
James Mickens, a Harvard professor and cybersecurity researcher, puts it another way:
Security research is the continual process of discovering that your spaceship is a deathtrap. However, as John F. Kennedy once said, “SCREW IT WE’RE GOING TO THE MOON.”(“This World of Ours,” 2014)
Yes, we all want to fix our spaceship, but sometimes… sometimes the rocket you have is good enough to get to the moon.
And with that, you have the long answer to the question, “is it safe to use coffee shop wi-fi?”
I have a few suggestions on what to do next:
- Journey to the next section: How to stay safe, where I try to provide some common—and maybe not-so-common—practical advice that can make your life safer.
- Read more about some of the technical side of cybersecurity, starting with What is HTTPS?.
But if you’re not satisified with the knowledge you have, hold on to that frustration—just a little. It’s right to feel frustrated that we don’t have complete answers, or that most advice is arbitrary and unscientific.
Keep that frustration in your mind, and the next time you read a security blog or consider buying a VPN, poke back a little. Ask for more. Ask for the whole answer, or look for your own.
Demand a complete answer—because until we have one, you’ll never be sure you’re protected. Take evidence-based action where you can, and, until you have all the answers…
Stay safe out there. 🔒