Technology in terms you understand. Sign up for my weekly newsletter, "Confident Computing", for more solutions you can use to make your life easier. Click here.

Can the Owner of an Open WiFi Hotspot See what Files I’m Downloading?

//

Just wondering if others can see what I’m downloading, say in a coffee shop or some other public place, like the administrator there? Or can they just tell that something is being downloaded. It’s a local place so I assume they have some local provider like Comcast. I imagine it just takes up their bandwidth and they don’t like that because it makes the connection slow for others in the establishment. Please let me know.

In this excerpt from Answercast #83, I look at safety in an internet cafe and how the owner, or even the guy right next to you, might be snooping.

Become a Patron of Ask Leo! and go ad-free!

Open WiFi hotspot downloads

So, yes, absolutely. Your ISP can see everything you do.

If you’re not taking additional steps to obfuscate, encrypt, or otherwise hide what you are doing, absolutely! Your ISP can see that you are downloading: say, a specific file from a specific location.

Now, why do I keep saying “ISP” when you’re actually at a coffee house?

The letters I.S.P. stand for Internet Service Provider. What is the coffee house doing? They are providing internet service to you. By being the administrator of an open Wi-Fi hotspot, that person can in fact monitor all unencrypted traffic and understand exactly what it is you’re doing or not.

Do hotspot owners watch?

Whether or not they care, whether or not they do is a completely different subject.

My guess is that, you know, the local manager at Starbucks doesn’t really care what you are doing with the internet – doesn’t really care what you’re downloading as long it’s legal. But, they can look, they can watch.

The only way to truly protect yourself from that level of intrusion is to use something like a VPN, a “Virtual Private Network” from a VPN service.

I have a couple of items in an article called, “How do I stay safe in an internet café?” That will point you to a couple of services that provide that VPN service.

But ultimately, that’s the only way to really hide what you’re doing from the coffee shop owner, from the administrator, or basically from your ISP.

Using up bandwidth

Now, the other part of this equation is bandwidth. When you’re using a VPN, they may not see what it is you’re downloading – but they can still see that you’re downloading a lot. They can probably figure out which computer connected to their hotspot is the guilty party. So it is still possible for them to identify you as being a bandwidth hog. They just can’t necessarily tell what it is you’re doing; they can’t tell exactly what file it is you’re downloading.

So ultimately, check out the article, “How do I stay safe in an internet café?” It has some very important tips to keep what you’re doing safe and secure.

Ultimately, a VPN is really the only way to protect at the level that you are discussing – where you’re just doing arbitrary file downloads. Most people don’t necessarily need that.

Security through https

If all you’re doing is email or banking, or those kinds of things, that are already using an https connection. Yeah, they can tell that you’ve connected up to your bank, or they can tell that you’ve connected up to your email provider, but they can’t read your email, they can’t see your banking information. That’s all encrypted by https.

The problem here is that so many things involving downloads are not necessarily https encrypted. In which case, yes, they can be seen.

As a matter of fact, the person sitting behind you with their own Wi-Fi-enabled laptop could potentially be watching what you download as well.

(Transcript lightly edited for readability.)

39 comments on “Can the Owner of an Open WiFi Hotspot See what Files I’m Downloading?”

  1. The only real caution I would make to WiFi users is never use your computer for banking or any other monetary transaction whether encrypted or not. As for business users they will have been warned by their respective companies.

  2. Hi,
    Since my wifi router password is stolen I think my private has been violated. I even think that my activities at my private is being monitored. If this is tru what to do. I have also an Xbox 360 connected to the Internet. My router model is a DIR-825 D-link. Canada doesn’t support it anymore and 1 question just costs the whole price of my router.
    Does it help if I connect my MacBook just with cable to the router, or well I need to buy another router?
    Thank you for your help
    Azin Deravi from Montreal, Canada

    • You should be able to change the password for your router. The documentation which comes with the router should explain how to do that. If you don’t have the documentation, the router manufacturer’s website should have instructions.

    • I know this was 2 years ago, but I would suggest getting a new router if you haven’t already. Depending on how they hacked you they may have the WPS PIN which stays they same even when you change your password.

      Wired connections are always more secure but may be less convenient.

  3. Hi, my doubt is if I’ve uploaded /downloaded a file to /from net using WiFi, can someone access the details at a later date what I’ve uploaded/downloaded?

    • Possibly, but highly unlikely. They’d be able to see that the file was downloaded, and they could see the MAC address of the device that downloaded it. You MAC address is unique to your device, but it would be like finding a needle in a haystack.

    • If you are using a VPN, everything to and from your computer is encrypted between you and the VPN server, so the WiFi owner would only be able to see the encrypted stream which would appear to them as garbage.

  4. If you tried to access a blocked site, does it notify the network administrator? Even if u didn’t enter the site, but tried and the message about the site being blocked due to content filtering or inappropriate content comes up, does it notify someone who will check on what website you tried to access?

  5. HI, I am not a computer/ tech savvy person. I have comcast hi speed Web and wifi, I run a galaxy tab off the WiFi, works great. However, I got a free home computer from someone..and it worked great for quite a while, using the xfinity provided 802.11 gateway modem. All9f the sudden I can’t get on the Internet with the home computer, every attempt comes up that’s it’s not a secure site . It’s an older company presario with Windows installed. Mozilla Firefox was the browser, I can’t figure out what the problem is, the firewall safety features thing is turned on…any ideas? I’d appreciate it.

  6. Question i have is if i sign in to my company guest wifi can they see that william signed in with his phone and is connected to the wifi so he had his phone at work. I’m not down loading anything but connected to ave my data.

    • They can see anything you do on their network. They would get the MAC address of your phone, but they wouldn’t be able to identify you directly from that. They would be able to identify you if you logged on a non-https site. They can see which sites you visit, but https would protect your login credentials. They could probably narrow down the information and figure out where the internet access was coming from, but unless you went to questionable sites or spent too much time using their WiFi, I don’t believe they would take the time to investigate.

    • They definitely can, but it’s rare that they would. To be safe use a VPN. The Opera browser comes with a built in VPN.

      Opera protects you on any sites you visit with their browser.(Added after Leo’s comment)

      • To be clear, as I understand it, Opera’s “VPN” isn’t a true VPN in that it only proxies web browsing within Opera. The rest of your online connections are direct. If you need a VPN get a VPN. 🙂

Leave a reply:

Before commenting please:

  • Read the article.
  • Comment on the article.
  • No personal information.
  • No spam.

Comments violating those rules will be removed. Comments that don't add value will be removed, including off-topic or content-free comments, or comments that look even a little bit like spam. All comments containing links and certain keywords will be moderated before publication.

I want comments to be valuable for everyone, including those who come later and take the time to read.