Gretel Egan | February 06, 2017

Understanding (and Mitigating) the Risks Associated with Open-Access WiFi

Device counts per household continue to rise, and mobile users are getting younger and younger. There is no “innate” understanding of how to use WiFi safely; on the contrary, many users seek to connect whenever possible in order to minimize mobile data usage. Unfortunately, there are legitimate dangers to being too trusting of public WiFi.

A recent study by Avast Software, a developer of PC and mobile security products, showed that even IT-savvy people tend to have a reckless attitude about open-access WiFi (i.e., WiFi networks that are not password protected). Individuals who don’t have a good understanding of the principles of cybersecurity are likely to be even less cautious, which puts financial and personal data at greater risk.

Knowing these points, it’s clear that new and existing users be brought up to speed on best practices for WiFi security.

In the past, I provided a few key tips for taking cybersecurity on the road, but I wanted to take this opportunity to re-emphasize the importance of treating open-access WiFi — also known as free WiFi and WiFi hotspots — with the kid gloves it deserves. There are a number of ways that hackers — experienced and inexperienced alike — can compromise WiFi networks. Though you cannot completely eliminate the risks associated with open WiFi, you can adopt better habits that can help to protect you and your data.

Here are three key best practices to make note of:

1. Restrict Your Activities

When on open WiFi, it’s important to limit your online activities. If you sign into email and social media accounts or make a purchase on a compromised network, an attacker could easily log that information and use it for his or her own gain. It’s always best to refrain from logging into secure sites or doing anything financial in nature (like making purchases or checking account balances) when you are connected to public WiFi.

If you absolutely cannot wait until you’re on a secure network to complete one of these riskier actions, the best thing to do is switch over to your mobile data. If you can't do that, it's critical to ensure that https is present in the web addresses you use — vs., for example. Many organizations now default to https because it helps secure the communications between you and the sites you visit.

In general, https is valuable addition to any online session that requires you to enter private information, not just those over WiFi. It’s important, however, that you do not confuse secure communications with safe sites.

2. Install a VPN

If you are regularly in situations where you use open-access WiFi to transmit personal or corporate data, don’t just rely on https; instead, install a virtual private network (VPN). As noted, it is alarmingly easy for someone to snoop on open WiFi traffic — but a VPN can help. Using a VPN is like creating a tunnel for your information to pass through; that tunnel essentially creates a barrier between your data and an attacker.

Your options for a VPN will vary depending on the type of device you’re using, so do some research and choose an application that has been well-reviewed by reliable sources.

3. Confirm Before You Connect

Because the names of WiFi networks are manually created, hackers can mimic the names of reliable networks. They often set up “rogue” or “evil twin” hotspots with names that seem logical or are similar to other networks in a given location (Airport Lounge or Lobby Wifi, for example).

How do you confirm a network is valid? Before connecting, check with an employee or another trusted source (an official sign or brochure, for example). And be careful: just a little difference in the name — one letter or number, for instance — means it’s a different network than the one you’re looking for.

Bottom Line: Think Before You Link

When you travel in your local area and beyond, you’re likely to visit many upstanding establishments, including coffee shops, restaurants, stores, and hotels. But just because you trust those locations, that doesn’t mean you can trust the free WiFi they offer.

Take this as fact: No open WiFi network is 100% safe. The good news is that you can reduce your risk. Make the effort to create new mobile device security habits for yourself and help others — like your kids, parents, and spouse — learn these best practices as well.