Travelers especially love using public Wifi hotspots since they do not usually have access to their own fixed broadband connections and often do not buy a local mobile SIM. Roaming data from their home provider is generally very expensive, and avoiding hefty carrier charges is high on the list of priorities for many travellers.
Travelers are therefore almost always on the lookout for any Wifi hotspot that promises free internet access, and connect to any and all until they find one that works.
Does the following scenario sound familiar? The plane lands. You turn on your mobile phone. You receive a text saying mobile data will cost approximately $40 per megabyte. You laugh and vow to buy a local SIM card immediately. As you wait for your luggage you scour the airwaves for a free Wifi hotspot which you can use to check emails and send updates to your family. Hoorah! “Free Airport Wifi 2” appears, and you connect immediately. Upon connection your phone discloses to this unknown hotspot the last 19 Wifi networks that you were connected to, as well as exposing any data you send through unsecure websites.
Internet connectivity in the form of free public Wifi is almost taken for granted when visiting many types of public establishment today, and can be a determining factor for many people when choosing which business to spend money at, but it may be time to think twice about connecting to unknown Wifi networks without the necessary protection.
Unfortunately, most wifi spots do not, and sometimes cannot, take the necessary steps to ensure users browse safely on their connections.
The hardest thing to guard against is the duplication of the public hotspot: a network attacker simply sets up his own hotspot with the same name, known as an Evil Twin, to which many unsuspecting users will connect and essentially give away all their information.
How easy is it for hackers to access your information?
On an unsecured wifi network, any other person on the network can see what data is sent to and from your device unless you are using a website that has encryption enabled. In an experiment conducted in London by F-Secure, researchers set up a mobile Wifi hotspot to which people connected in the hopes of obtaining free internet access. The researchers then monitored all data that was transmitted, which included in some cases unencrypted POP3 traffic from email clients, from which they could view email usernames and passwords in plain text. Needless to say this is a massive security loophole, one that is still exploitable today.
On a legitimate (not an Evil Twin) secured network it becomes a little harder for a hacker to gain access to your information. Depending on the type of security it can be either trivial or quite time consuming. One thing to keep in mind is that it can always be done depending on how determined the hacker is. So ask yourself, do you want to risk it?
Reusing passwords is never a good idea, since if a hacker obtains one password from a weakly-secured site, along with your email address or username, they will try to login to multiple online platforms using this combo, until they find some useful information they can profit from. Consider using Keepass to generate and store strong passwords.
Firewalls and Antivirus
Always maintain an up-to-date antivirus program on your PC, and keep your firewall enabled. Avast offers free antivirus software for Mac, PC and Android. Antivirus software is largely unnecessary for Linux computers.
Make sure your computer sets any public wifi hotspot to “untrusted” or “public” in order to disable network access to your files and heighten security, and turn off your Wifi when you aren’t using it.
Virtual Private Networks (VPN)
Using a VPN, such as AirVPN, is an inexpensive way of gaining strong online security and peace-of-mind when using public hotspots, and even browsing from home. It encrypts all data before it leaves your device, sends it through to the VPN provider where it is decrypted, and then passes to its intended destination. Any data sent back from the services you use online is encrypted as it leaves the VPN on its way back to your device. A VPN service will set you back little more than $10 per month, and should be an essential for any traveller looking to use public Wifi hotspots.
Once you’re done with the free Wifi, “forget” the network and erase it from your device, and if you have an inkling of suspicion that you may have behaved insecurely, then think seriously about changing all the account passwords you used in that session.
Cover Image Courtesy Cameron Adams, Flickr