Wireless networks are everywhere. From shopping malls to airports, nearly every public space has Wi-Fi available. And while these networks are great for busy people who need to stay connected wherever they go, they can be a magnet for malicious hackers.
Not only can a public or “open” wireless network give hackers a way to get online anonymously, it can also expose legitimate users to attack. Depending on how the wireless network is configured, everything you send and receive while connected could be intercepted by malicious hackers. Before you take advantage of the free Wi-Fi at your local coffee shop, think about the dangers involved and learn how to protect yourself.
Everything You Do is Public on a Public Network
The wireless network in your home or office is almost certainly protected with a password. Not only does this password help ensure that only people authorized to use the network are granted access, it also protects the information sent over the airwaves by encrypting it. Public wireless networks usually offer no such protections.
When you connect to a wireless network without a password, most everything you do is sent “in the clear,” and can be seen by anyone with a wireless device and freely-available software. To counter such eavesdropping, some individual web sites offer end-to-end encryption through a secure protocol called “HTTPS.” Unfortunately, not all web sites offer HTTPS, and some sites only employ it when you first sign in—a security oversight which would still allow a malicious hacker to hijack your account.
Can You Trust the Network’s Owner
Even if your local coffee shop requires you to enter a password before getting online, that’s no guarantee that your information won’t fall into someone else’s hands. Whoever controls the wireless access point controls your data. If someone working at the coffee shop is unethical, he or she can configure the wireless router to snoop on all the traffic it handles.
Another thing to consider is whether or not you’re even connected to the wireless network you think you are. Malicious hackers will often create fraudulent “hotspots” in high-traffic areas, crafted to look like the legitimate networks of area businesses. If you make a habit of using open wireless networks, you could be connecting to a hacker’s hotspot without even knowing it.
Take Steps to Protect Yourself
Good security practice begins with understanding the risks posed by the services and technologies you use. Now that you’re aware of the dangers found in using public wireless networks, you can take steps to protect yourself, and still reap the benefits of free Wi-Fi.
First, never allow your wireless devices to automatically connect to open Wi-Fi. It’s okay to enable automatic connections for your home and office networks, but your device should always ask for your permission before connecting to public hotspots.
Next, whenever you connect to a public network, use a browser extension such as the EFF’s “HTTPS Everywhere.” This extension ensures that your browser will always use the secure, encrypted protocol whenever you access a web site which supports HTTPS. Above all, never log in to a web site or share your personal information over an unencrypted session.
Lastly, if your job or usage requires you to regularly connect to public wireless networks, you should strongly consider signing up for a Virtual Private Network, or “VPN,” offered by a trusted provider. Among other things, a VPN will encrypt any and all information sent between your device and the Internet.
Many trusted providers offer VPNs for as little as $10 per month, and some web hosting companies even offer free VPN service as part of their higher-tier packages. This combination of low cost and solid protection makes using a VPN the best way to avoid the dangers of public wireless networks without giving up their advantages. Without one, you’re taking a big risk every time you connect.
About ManageURiD. ManageURiD is owned and operated by military veterans; seasoned professionals with decades of experience in the advanced analytics and data mining software industry. Our senior team has extensive knowledge in the “sensitive consumer data” space, and a highly successful track record of supporting organizations and major federal agencies with data-intensive mandates in areas such as intelligence, security, law enforcement, finance, healthcare, and homeland security.