As of January 2021, there were 4.66 billion internet users worldwide, 92.6% of them connecting to the internet through the Wi-Fi on their phones. However, few know that phone Wi-Fi can reveal a person’s living location.
“All it takes for someone to find your house location is your Wi-Fi name. There are public websites like Wigle.net that create heatmaps of Wi-Fi hotspots. Anybody can simply type your Wi-Fi name into Wigle’s search bar and find out where you live. Once the hackers know your address, it makes it easier for them to connect to your router and steal your data,” digital security expert at NordVPN Daniel Markuson comments.
How does your phone reveal your Wi-Fi name?
A phone is continuously looking for trusted Wi-Fi networks. Once a person gets close to home or work, the device automatically connects to the network it finds there. This is convenient, but by continually broadcasting these “joining requests”, the phone gives out a lot of valuable information about it.
“There are apps that can collect the names of all the nearby Wi-Fis, including your home network. This data is then sent to websites like Wigle.net that attach a Wi-Fi name to its location,” Daniel Markuson explains. “In fact, you don’t even need to have the app installed on your device – it’s enough for your neighbor to have it and catch the signal of your home Wi-Fi.”
Can hackers know where you live?
Having “joining requests” combined with Wigle’s data, a hacker only needs a Wi-Fi name to figure out the user’s living location. There are a couple of ways they find it out.
A malicious person might call pretending to be the Internet Service Provider and ask for the Wi-Fi name, or send a phishing email asking to confirm the connection details. Another way is to use Wi-Fi scanners to catch the joining requests that devices are sending.
“A hacker can stick the scanner under a bench in your local park, under a table at your favorite coffee shop, or just carry it in his backpack,” says Daniel Markuson from NordVPN. “You won’t notice it, but the scanner will passively log all nearby Wi-Fi join requests.”
The hacker will then use software to see the requests his device caught. This way, he will see all local Wi-Fi networks, what devices are connected to them, and which devices are “searching” for trusted networks.
“With such information at hand, it makes it a lot easier to connect to your Wi-Fi router. Securing your router is vital. As a central connection point for every device in your home, your router controls who has access to your home Wi-Fi. If anyone malicious is connected to it, they could hack your phone, steal your files, spy on everything you do online, and even steal your identity,” Daniel Markuson warns.
How can you protect yourself?
As scary as it sounds, Daniel Markuson says that there are ways to protect yourself, and most of them don’t require much technical knowledge.
Change your phone’s Wi-Fi settings or turn it off. Even if your phone is connected to a Wi-Fi network, this doesn’t stop it from scanning the area for other networks. The easiest way to change this is to either adjust your settings or completely turn Wi-Fi scanning off. You will still be able to manually connect to your saved Wi-Fi network (you won’t need to re-enter the password.)
Change your Wi-Fi strength. To keep your Wi-Fi from showing up on hotspot heat maps, you can reduce your Wi-Fi strength. You will get a better signal if your router is in an open space rather than in your closet, but it doesn’t need to be so strong that your neighbors can use it too.
Use a VPN on your Wi-Fi router. A VPN can encrypt the traffic on every device connected to your home Wi-Fi. It scrambles all of your online data, so your traffic appears as complete gibberish to any hackers trying to intercept it. That way, criminals won’t be able to access your data even if they hack the router.