Wi-Fi vs. Mobile Data: Which Is More Secure?
By JOHNATHAN JAEHNIG
You need to know which connection type is most secure and private. But is it Wi-Fi, or mobile data? Protecting digital security and privacy should be at the front of everyone’s mind. More and more of our sensitive data is being carried around and actively accessed out in the world. And more and more of the world is making itself accessible through open Wi-Fi networks.
Privacy And Security
Most people use privacy and security as interchangeable terms. However, they actually mean different things. Some connections are secure, some are private, some are both, and some are neither.
Security means that your actions can’t be seen by people outside of your network, like hackers. In general, operating with the most security means understanding the connection types that you’re using. Typically, some level of security is important. How important it is depends on the kind of information that you’re accessing or inputting. If you’re updating your debit card balance, you want a secure connection. If you’re checking whether an actor was really in that old movie, you can probably risk checking on a less secure connection. That is, provided that you’re careful with how you access more sensitive data.
Privacy means that your actions can’t be seen by actors within your network, like websites that you use or apps on your device. Operating with the most privacy means understanding the terms and conditions of providers, websites, and applications that you access and the ways in which you use those websites and applications. There are some actions on the web that just wouldn’t work if they were completely private. That’s why the terms and conditions for websites and applications are so important. Some websites and applications need to have access, and sometimes the permission to share your data in order to work as expected. You just have to know who has access to what data, why they need it, how they use it, and who (if anyone) they share it with. There are two basic kinds of internet connection for mobile devices. Both allow connection in basically the same way. But how the device connects and who can potentially see your activity on those connections varies.
Wi-Fi is a wireless internet connection created by a router connected to a modem. The modem actually creates the network through the service provider and the router allows mobile devices to connect wirelessly. That means that the internet service provider (ISP) has access to pretty much anything that you’re doing online. If you’re in control of your own network, you can take control of this to some degree by using systems like Tor and/or a VPN. However, if you’re on someone else’s network, it’s not so simple. When you access a Wi-Fi network, it’s either open or closed. Closed networks, like the network that you use at home or at work, require a password. Open networks, like at some restaurants and other public places, don’t require a password. This is a problem for two big reasons if you’re particularly concerned about your privacy and security.
The first is that you don’t know who else is on the network or what they’re capable of.
The second is that many mobile devices are set to automatically connect to open Wi-Fi, so you might be at some risk even if you aren’t actively doing sensitive transactions on your device. If you’re worried about your device automatically connecting, you should be able to adjust that in your device settings.
Mobile data works essentially the same way as Wi-Fi. The biggest difference is that the signal comes through your mobile service provider rather than your ISP. Sure, mobile service providers might still have access to some of your information. And again, the sites that you visit (and sites that they share/sell your data to) will as well. However, unlike Wi-Fi connections, mobile data connections are encrypted, adding an extra level of security from outside threats. That’s why security experts like Norton recommend using mobile data instead of Wi-Fi to access sensitive information when you’re out and about. “Instead of Wi-Fi” doesn’t just mean “turn your data on,” it also means “turn your Wi-Fi off.” Most mobile devices will use Wi-Fi instead of data when Wi-Fi is available and both connections are turned on.
Other Security Tips
Norton also likes to say that no connection is completely safe. That’s even true if you’re using mobile data. However, there are a couple of things that you can do to make your interactions on the mobile web even safer.
Most mobile plans have limited data. Even most “unlimited” plans will “throttle” your data. That is to say, after you use a set amount of data you still have access to data but it’s a slower form of data. So, check your mobile plan to see how much data you have and what happens after you run out. As mentioned above, not everything that the average person does on the internet needs to be secure or even private. So, consider saving your data for doing things like checking your bank account and use open Wi-Fi connections to do things like search quotes that you can’t place.
Be Aware Of Cookies
It also means that what’s more important than protecting your cookies is thinking twice about which sites you enter potentially sensitive information on. Or, safer yet, thinking twice about which sites you access at all.
Use Two Browsers Or Apps
What is probably scarier than cookies is that these days most browsers save your passwords. If you have this setting on (and most people do) then the more information a hacker gets the more information they can get their hands on. There are a couple of ways to get around this. One is to set your browser so that it doesn’t remember passwords to sites that have sensitive information, like mobile banking. Another is to use a separate dedicated app if possible. To return to the example of mobile banking, if your banking service has a dedicated app it’s (probably) safer to access the service through that app than through your browser. Even the app isn’t safer, using the app instead can keep passwords to sensitive content off of your browser.
A similar but potentially simpler solution is to use two different browsers. That’s one browser for less sensitive activities (casual browsing, streaming, social media, etc.) and one for more sensitive activities (online banking, online shopping, email, etc.). You can use a standard browser like Chrome or Safari for less sensitive actions and a dedicated secure browser like Tor for more sensitive activities. Or, just use two different standard browsers for both kinds of activities just to prevent that mingling of passwords and data. Finally, when you’re out and about, this method plays particularly well with the earlier approach involving managing your data. Use your dedicated secure browser on a data connection and use Wi-Fi to access your standard browser.
Keep Up-To-Date On Developments
As of this writing, mobile data is the best choice for accessing sensitive information when you aren’t on your own secure network. However, being sloppy with how you manage your information is still important. Be careful with what websites you give what information to, and use different connection types and browsers for different kinds of activity to stay safe. No part of this article will be out of date by the time you read it but all technology articles have a limited shelf life. 5G data from carriers like Verizon is already available in some locations and for some devices, and just around the corner for others. 5G isn’t just faster than 4G. It also works differently in some important ways, including relying on a combination of longer-range and shorter-range towers. This will have implications for the future of mobile security.