Nothing Is Free, Not Even Free WiFi

Everywhere you go, restaurants are offering free WiFi services to their customers to keep them around and keep them ordering more food. This seems like less a benevolent service at this point, and more like an expected amenity anywhere you go. I’m furious when I find myself at a hotel where I have to pay for WiFi or a restaurant that doesn’t have it, get with the program! It’s 2019!

However, as much as we are used to having free public WiFi around, what we don’t realize is that most public WiFi is run through a third-party provider… in fact one of a few third-party providers. These third-party public WiFi providers are certainly charging for their services, but they are also collecting your data as a bonus, and that data is worth so much more than any bill they could charge.

Think about what you have to do in order to Login to most public WiFi, you usually have to offer some sort of email address, or social media profile, or phone number… and when they collect this information they hold on to it. It may be written in their terms of service, but let’s be honest, who’s really reading that? Once they have your email, that piece of information is fairly present in your website traffic and they can start to understand what kind of internet user you are outside of what you did on their WiFi, which of course, is also tracked.

Here’s the part you maybe wouldn’t have guessed, they can track where you are on a more geographical level because the couple of providers that exist power WiFi all over the country at various different locations. Once you sign a device into a WiFi network in one place, that device is stored, and when you pass by any other business that has that same public WiFi provider, that WiFi network can detect that your device is nearby EVEN though you never connected to it. That’s creepy. Essentially you could be driving by a Mcdonalds in Nebraska and the WiFi network you signed into back in a Pittsburgh Starbucks has now found you in Nebraska.

Don’t worry, I wasn’t just going to tell you all of that and leave you high and dry, here’s how you can protect yourself. First of all, leave your WiFi off on your devices unless you are using it. Not only will it prevent these networks from discovering your device, but it will save you battery too! Opt out of location tracking whenever possible, it’s just not something you need. You can also delete your data from various companies, and that information is listed in the Terms and Conditions, which you should at least scan from now on. It’s more and less difficult to delete this data based on which provider you are dealing with. The biggest, and easiest tip I can give you to protect yourself is to just use your own internet. Use your cell phone carrier data plan, or turn your phone into a HotSpot, or get yourself a Mobile WiFi Hotspot where you can get personal and encrypted WiFi no matter where you are in the world.

Just stay aware, and stay vigilant in your efforts to protect yourself digitally. You have no idea how easy it has become to collect data about you, and the more you arm yourself with knowledge of how these companies do that, the more you can prevent your data from falling into the wrong hands.