Public Wi-Fi Hotspots More of a Threat Than You Think

Christopher Sewerd From our Perspective

The internet without a doubt has changed the world dramatically and with those changes have been certain milestones. The invention of certain websites can be considered milestones in themselves as some have completely altered the landscape of the internet and it’s use.

One recent milestone is the advent of mobile internet and none more so considered a technological milestone than the introduction of Wi-Fi and in particular public Wi-Fi hotspots. This fantastic mobile internet solution has both changed general consumer internet access and business use.

Industry experts the Wireless Broadband Alliance have predicted that annual Wi-Fi hotspot deployments will double from 5.2 million world wide in 2012 to 10.5 million by 2018. The amount of current hotspots is staggering and with expansion expected to double within the space of 6 years it only goes to prove that Wi-Fi is here to stay and rapidly increase to meet consumer demand. JR Wilson of the Wireless Broadband Alliance reiterated the impact this will have on consumers in a recent statement.

The biggest change will be one that people won’t even realize has happened – a whole new customer experience enabled by ubiquitous mobile broadband access.

So with the explosion of Wi-Fi hotspots it makes sense that actual public use of such hotspots must be increasing at the same rapid rate too. While finding an open public network or a network that hands out a single password to every customer is usually considered a bonus the ramifications of such systems can be all too unrewarding.

How public Wi-Fi use has evolved

No matter if you’re in a coffee shop, a shopping mall, on vacation or holiday, finding a Wi-Fi hotspot gives many users chance to check their emails, update their statuses or kill a bit of time. Airports are a prime example of decent places to kill time, shopping for presents, keeping up with your finances or all those other mundane jobs we put off are often done on the move while connected to that handy public Wi-Fi connection.

Public use of Wi-Fi is undoubtedly growing but public attitude to the security of such systems hasn’t much changed and with organisations like the FBI warning of the dangers as far back and further than 2008 it’s rather odd to see that the rapid uptake of Wi-Fi hasn’t followed suit with a rapid security rethink of the users of public Wi-Fi. The public themselves shouldn’t be blamed for the lack in understanding of the security issues surrounding public unsecured Wi-Fi and better education in relation to Wi-Fi use should be taught in schools and computer related subjects and also highlighted in any establishment that offers free Wi-Fi. When was the last time you saw a notice in any Wi-Fi enabled location that reminded you not to access sensitive information or services via that Wi-Fi service?

Corporate public Wi-Fi use

The situation is further exasperated by the increasing use of corporate or mobile workers access of public Wi-Fi. Those who have jobs that require extensive travel, meetings or lunch on the go can find themselves tempted to check up on corporate emails, carry out minor tasks on the go or a plethora of other business related activity that can easily be ticked off the to-do list while grabbing a coffee over lunch or waiting for a plane departure. With workers making use of a mix of their own devices plus corporate devices this sort of access opens up these devices to be installed with viruses and malware plus compromise current and future corporate data that is stored on the device.

BAE systems gave a simple but important message.

Businesses must educate employees about the risks of using their own devices and prioritising convenience over security” … “An obvious step would be education about the risks of using open, unencrypted Wi-Fi connections

What are the risks of using public Wi-Fi?

  • Fake Hotspots : One of the least considered security issues with public Wi-Fi is trusting the network you’re connecting to. How many users simply connect to a network because it resembles in name similar to the location you’re in? It is extremely easy for criminals to open up a free Wi-Fi hotspot using a name that will entice members of the public to connect to. Double checking with the establishment that you’re in that the name of the Wi-Fi is correct before connecting is a good step to avoid falling fowl of such tricks.


  • Man in the middle : A man in the middle attack attempts to insert the criminal between yourself and the hotspot to siphon off all of your data and attempt to steal passwords and other sensitive information. No one is immune from this type of attack with a recent incident involving the European parliament turning off their whole public Wi-Fi system after a man in the middle attack was found to be in operation on the service. Not accessing sensitive services such as your bank, email and other such sites on public Wi-Fi will reduce the risk of being caught out.


  • Packet Sniffers : Simple tools exist such as Firesheep which intercept various information passed over unsecured Wi-Fi. These tools are available to download by anyone and with just minor computer knowledge can easily be used to intercept connection to sites such as Facebook and in turn control the users social media account.

How can I protect myself on public Wi-Fi hotspots?

Surprisingly the solution to securing yourself on public Wi-Fi systems is rather simple. Signing up to a relatively cheap VPN service such as LiquidVPN which will encrypt your connection is actually the only tool you’ll need. Once connected a secure tunnel will be created from your system to the LiquidVPN service which will be encrypted to industry standards removing the ability for anyone on the same public Wi-Fi system or in close proximity to be able to snoop on what you’re doing online, this includes safeguarding your personal information such as login and password details.

With software for Windows and Mac systems plus easy guides to set up across a range of mobile devices such as Android and iOS you can simply protect any device for a few dollars a month with very little technical know how required.

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