Protect yourself from data theft
Public Wi-Fi hotspots are the most vulnerable of all data networks. And with the high speeds and zero charges associated with them, it is often very hard to overcome the open invitation to use them.
The problem is that these public Wi-Fi networks might not have WPA or WPA2 passwords. Because it is hard to individually inform each and every customer the password when they request for it, the providers either do away with it or to prevent non-customers from using the free Wi-Fi; they put it up on a sign over the counter. Not providing Wi-Fi is out of the question; they would lose a lot of valuable customers as people would then take their business elsewhere, to places that do. Given how much our mobile devices and/or laptops are a part of our daily lives, it can be difficult to resist the temptation to keep checking them every now and then.
In cafe, for example, all a hacker needs to do is be on the same network to view what information you are sending or receiving over the public Wi-Fi network. He/she doesn’t even need any level of technical expertise; there are tools available for free over the internet that can help him/her achieve this purpose. And even if a password is required, all they need to do is pretend to be a customer and buy a cup of coffee to get on the public Wi-Fi network. For unsecured networks such as at airports and train stations, it is all the more easier. Obtaining banking log in-password combinations and credit card information of others could be extremely advantageous to them, so you can know for sure that they are indeed present on public Wi-Fi networks.
The VPN advantage
The only way to protect yourself from hackers, apart from not using public Wi-Fi networks at all, is to use a VPN or Virtual Private Network. How this works is that a VPN server is placed between you and the website you visit (say for example that of your bank); and all communication between you and the VPN server is encrypted. So when you log on to your bank’s website using your password as well as when you download financially sensitive information, the hacker who is connected to the same public Wi-Fi network as you sees only a string of random characters and digits which he/she cannot decipher. Decrypting a 128-bit encryption would take him/her 734 centuries with a standard laptop; and it would require two million such laptops working continuously for thirteen days (or one million laptops working for 26 days) if he/she were to crack it in a month. It is unlikely that hackers have that kind of processing power, and so you are safe from data theft with a VPN.