Despite security risks of free public Wi-Fi, 81% still connect to it, OWI Labs survey finds

With hundreds of thousands of fans traveling to Russia for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, security experts have repeatedly cautioned not to use free public Wi-Fi to stay connected while abroad. However, a new survey by OWI Labs shows most people do not heed that advice, and many actually prefer connecting to Wi-Fi rather than using their own cellular data plan.

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OWI Labs, in partnership with Lucid, polled individuals in the U.S., France and Germany about their use of public Wi-Fi networks. In all three countries, the overall story was largely the same: Many users prefer public Wi-Fi over their paid wireless data plan, and even more will turn to public Wi-Fi when they can’t get a connection.

In the U.S. alone, 49 percent of 217 respondents said they only use public Wi-Fi when they can’t get a cellular connection otherwise. But another 32 percent said they actually prefer using free public Wi-Fi.

That means that 81 percent of respondents in America turn to public Wi-Fi either on occasion or regularly.

A small share — just 1 percent — said they will use public Wi-Fi only if they are using a virtual private network, or VPN, to protect their data. The remaining 18 percent said they never use free public Wi-Fi.

In Germany, choosing Wi-Fi over cellular was even more popular: 46 percent of 126 respondents said they would rather use a public Wi-Fi hotspot over their own data plan. Another 28 percent said they only use public Wi-Fi when they don’t have reception.

The OWI Labs survey found that VPN adoption is a little stronger in Germany, as 6 percent of those polled said they only use public Wi-Fi with a secure connection. And 20 percent said they never use publicly available Wi-Fi.

And in France, OWI Labs and Lucid polled 205 respondents, in which 48 percent use public Wi-Fi if they don’t have a connection, and 32 percent prefer it. Just 18 percent never use public Wi-Fi, matching the share in the U.S. The remaining 2 percent of the 205 respondents said they use free Wi-Fi with a VPN.

The results show Germany as somewhat an outlier, where customers prefer public Wi-Fi over cellular. But regardless, in all three countries — the U.S., France and Germany — the majority of users will turn to public Wi-Fi networks without a VPN, either as their first choice, or as an alternative when they don’t have signal.

Fake Wi-Fi hotspots are an easy way for fraudsters to collect personal information from users on the go — particularly those traveling abroad, who don’t want to pay high rates for data roaming charges. A recent study found that more than 7,000 public Wi-Fi hotspots in World Cup host cities are insecure.

When users connect to an unsecured network, all network traffic is potentially exposed, including usernames, passwords, and sensitive personal information, which can lead to identity theft.