Are Mobile Hotspots Safe? The Answer May Surprise You.
Mobile hotspots can sometimes be lifesavers, but how do you make sure you’re not giving up safety for convenience?
I was working at the corner coffee shop last week, and it was going great. I had the best caffeine buzz ever going, my patented Spotify work playlist was going full blast in my earbuds, and the words were flowing directly from my mind, out through my fingers, and onto my laptop. The whole setup was genius.
Then the shop’s Wi-fi went out.
As you do in situations like this, I immediately began to problem-solve. I didn’t go to college for nothing, after all. Thankfully my caffeine supply was entirely unaffected. For the tunes, I just logged in to Spotify from my cell. That left just one big problem: with my document nearly wrapped up, I needed to get it to the office. Like, immediately. There was only one option in that case, and I was grateful for it: I opened a hotspot on my cell phone and linked my laptop to it. Easy-peasy.
Is that safe though? Maybe you’ve found yourself in a similar situation: stuck on the side of the road and desperate to get an expense report from your laptop to payroll before the end of the day; snowed in at your cousin’s rustic cabin in the Rockies and anxious to turn in a term paper before the deadline; or at the airport wanting to check your bank balance before boarding your flight. You’ve had the same question: Is it safe?
The simple answer is no. But you can take steps to fix that. Below we’ll get into everything you need to know, from how hotspots work to whether VPNs can make them safe. By the time we’re done, you’ll know how a hotspot can actually make you safer if you use it correctly.
How Do Mobile Hotspots Work?
To understand where security dangers may lie for your mobile hotspot network, you first have to understand a little about how hotspots work.
Basically, there are three components to a hotspot.
- First there’s the source connection, the whatever-it-is your hotspot device is using to access the internet. If you’re using a mobile device, that source is probably a 4G or 5G connection. It could also be the public Wi-Fi at the coffee house.
- Then there’s the hotspot device itself, which is usually a mobile device.
- Finally there’s the tethered device — the laptop, in our case — you’re connecting to the hotspot.
The hotspot device connects to the source, the tethered device connects to the hotspot, and the hotspot provides the tethered device access to the source.
Where Are the Weak Spots, and How Do You Fix Them?
What can possibly go wrong in a setup like this? Plenty.
Your hotspot — your mobile device — has two connections: one to the source and one to the tethered device. Either could potentially leak your data so anyone else on the network can see who you are and what you’re up to. Someone in the vicinity could also connect to your hotspot and run up your data bill by streaming their own Spotify playlists.
What do you do about those problems? That depends on how you’ve set up your connections. Let’s consider both ends of the equation.
There are basically three ways to connect your hotspot to the internet.
- You can connect through your mobile data plan. You’re actually pretty safe with 5G, 4G, and even 3G, at least from hackers or casual observers. The downside to this type of connection is that you’re using data, and at some point you may be hit with overage charges. Your mobile carrier also still has access to information about what sites you’re visiting and what apps you’re using. When it comes to privacy, you can do better.
- You could instead connect to public Wi-Fi if it’s available, but it begs the question: If you have access to public Wi-Fi, why do you need to create a hotspot in the first place? You can log on with any of your devices. More importantly, public Wi-Fi is notoriously insecure. The whole point is to allow anyone and everyone who happens to be at the location to join the same network. Once everyone is on the same network, you can never tell who is doing what.
- A third option is a VPN, which lots of people choose when faced with public Wi-Fi. A VPN is an encrypted tunnel to the internet. You still need either your data plan or public Wi-Fi to get to the tunnel, but once you’re in the tunnel, you know for certain no one has access to your personal information. No one knows your IP address, and no one can see your browsing history.
Did You Know: A VPN is an encrypted tunnel that connects you to the internet, but you can’t use a VPN if you don’t have an existing internet connection.
What does all this mean?
- Never use public Wi-Fi for your hotspot source if you can help it. It’s never safe logging on to public Wi-Fi, but you’re magnifying your vulnerabilities if you use it for a hotspot.
- Your mobile data plan keeps you safe from hacking and casual intrusion, but your service provider may still log your browsing history — and they’re charging you while they do it.
- The safest option for a hotspot source is to connect to the internet through a reputable VPN. No one can access your data or see what you’re up to online.
Your hotspot makes a second connection, to the device or devices using it as a hotspot. The second connection is known as the tether.
The tether connection is just as vulnerable to eavesdropping and hacking as the source connection. If left unsecured, anyone nearby can log on to your hotspot. Obviously that puts your data at risk. They don’t have to go to the trouble of sorting through your device to wreck your day. They can simply use your hotspot as free internet, cavorting on the web to their heart’s content on your dime.
It’s important that you secure this connection too. Since you’re the one who created it, you’re the one who will have to do the securing.
- Make sure you give your network — SSID — a name. Databases exist that contain the passwords for Android, iPhone, and portable hotspot devices, and these passwords are keyed to the default SSID. Naming your network will help prevent anyone from using one of these passwords to access your network.
- You need to set a strong password for your hotspot so you — and only you — can access it. For maximum security, you’ll also want to change the password regularly.
- Use WPA2 or WPA3 encryption.
Terminology: SSID stands for service set identifier. It’s basically the name of your network.
The best VPNs can also significantly improve the security of your tether connection, but a VPN on the mobile hotspot device will not protect your tethered device. Android OS and iOS do not allow VPN security to move in two directions. If you want to secure your tether connection, you need to install a VPN on the tethered device. It helps to sign up with a VPN that allows as many simultaneous connections on as many devices as possible, so you won’t pay extra to install the software on both the mobile hotspot and the tethered device.
Pro Tip: Windows allows VPNs to work two ways at once. If you don’t have access to a VPN-ready router, you can use your Windows-based computer as a hotspot, and your VPN coverage on that device will extend to all your tethered devices.
The Bottom Line
A mobile hotspot is not inherently safe. Quite the opposite, in fact. It can be hacked either at the point where it connects to the internet or the point where it connects to any tethered device. Others can see what you’re up to and, in certain circumstances, may even be able to take over your entire network.
That doesn’t mean you can’t use this handy technology in a pinch or even to improve your existing security. The trick is to know exactly how your hotspot works and how to shore up any potential holes in your security. A VPN and some strong passwords can ensure you’re safe as houses, even if you’re using a tethered device.