The Risks of Unsecured WiFi Hotspots

With the convenience and mobility of smartphones and tablets, business has never been easier to conduct on the go. Some service providers are even offering mobile network calling to expand coverage in areas with poor cellular reception.

However, if you frequently use WiFi hotspots, you need to be aware of the inherent risks in doing so and take the necessary precautions.

The Issue of Privacy

The thing about public networks is anybody can use them, and you never know who you’re sharing cyberspace with. It’s a lot like using a public parking lot. You run the risk of someone dinging your car, or in this case, hacking your connection.

It’s surprisingly easy to do, and public WiFi hotspots present tempting targets to hackers. Many times these individuals will stake out locations, appearing to be nothing more than a guy enjoying his coffee and surfing Reddit. In all reality, you could be sharing bandwidth with someone who’s secretly trying to hack your connection two tables away.

The Solution: Manage Privacy Settings and Install a VPN

It’s important to realize that public WiFi hotspots are often targets for identity thieves, and to take the necessary precautions. Before you even attempt to connect, go over the network and sharing settings on your device, and familiarize yourself with how and when your device shares information.

Of particular concern are public access folders. Make sure you have file sharing turned off, and always be cautious about what kind of files you put into these folders. Also, if your device has a setting called Network Discovery, it’s a good idea to make sure it’s turned off.

This setting allows other devices to spot yours on the network. While it’s handy for locating nearby wireless printers, it also puts you on the radar for other users on the network and could present you as a possible target.

Once you get your security settings figured out, it’s worth looking into further measures for protecting your data. While the basic settings make it more difficult for hackers to notice you on a network, your data is still floating freely over the same connection they’re using.

It’s a good idea to have a VPN installed on your mobile devices as an additional security measure. VPNs actually encrypt all of your web traffic, so that even if your data is intercepted, it’s completely indecipherable to the thief.

A lot of people actually install VPNs as a way to access blocked websites, but the level of security and internet privacy that they provide is tough to match on its own even. It’s definitely an app worth installing.

Constant Data Transmission

Another major problem with WiFi hotspots is that our devices almost always try to interact with them automatically. That phone in your pocket, unless you adjust the settings, is going to try to connect with every hotspot you pass through.

During that time, your apps could be updating, you could be receiving emails, social media notifications—any number of personal data that could be transmitting over an unsecured network completely unbeknownst to you. Again, this is a case for managing your device’s settings. Ultimately, it falls on you to ensure that your device doesn’t communicate with networks without your say-so.

The Risk of Infection

Like any physical public space, virtual public spaces also carry the risk of spreading viruses, namely in this case, malware. If another device on the network is infected with something, it’s entirely possible that the malware will use the network to try to reach other devices.

The Solution: Install Anti-virus Protection

Make sure you’re always running the latest anti-virus software on your device and that your firewall is fully functional on these public networks. If you have a smartphone, this is of equal concern, so be sure to shop around the app stores to find a compatible program that will protect your device from infection.

“Fake” Hotspots

This is an issue that is seldom discussed, but is very much a real threat, and one that can wreak absolute havoc on users. Often referred to as the honeypot, fake WiFi hotspots are set up for the sole purpose of luring victims in with the promise of free WiFi, only to steal their information.
It’s a simple setup, and one that can be difficult to prevent, short of simply sticking to using only business networks that you trust. In an experiment to see just how effective this method was at stealing users’ information, F-Secure built a WiFi hotspot in the heart of London.

For this experiment, they had users of the hotpot agree to their terms and conditions, and just for fun, those included that the user must give up their firstborn child or pet to use the network. The hotspot was only active for a few hours, but in that time, six users agreed to those terms.

Over the course of the experiment, the team from F-Secure found that 250 devices connected to the network, and that 33 people actively used it (keep in mind, that means that 220 devices communicated with the network without their owners actually doing anything).

At the end of the experiment, the data that was collected was destroyed, but a staggering point had been made—users are nowhere near cautious enough with public WiFi use. And setting up a dummy network such as this one is an all too successful way to steal information.

Convenience at a Cost

Nobody is expecting to read this article and suddenly swear off public WiFi use. It’s just too darn convenient. And it makes sense. With hotspots located at nearly every block these days, you can stay connected constantly, working from virtually anywhere and even filling out spotty cell phone coverage with what is essentially now supplemental voIP service.

And that’s all great, by all means, cloud compute, work remotely, Tweet away, but do so with the knowledge and understanding that your data over a public WiFi hotspot is only as secure as you make it. You have to go that extra mile, and you have to be extremely proactive to keep your data safe.

Do not skimp on this one. Identity theft happens all the time, and this is one of the most common ways in which it does. You can prevent it, but ultimately the security aspect of hotspot use falls to you, not the administrator.

Have you ever had your connection hacked? How long did it take for you to realize what had happened?

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