How to Avoid the Potential Dangers of Public WiFi

Within the last decade free public WiFi has become a useful tool for the mobile workforce. Since these free access points are available at restaurants, hotels, airports, bookstores, and of course Starbucks, you are rarely more than a short trip away from accessing your work. This freedom comes at a price though, and few truly understand the public WiFi risks associated with these connections. Learning how to protect yourself will not only ensure your personal data is safe, but also protect your company from a data breach or cyber attack.

The Risks of Public WiFi

WiFi hotspots are very convenient for consumers because they require no authentication, just simply check a box to agree to some terms and conditions and you are on the free network. It is equally as convenient for a hacker to join the network and deploy key loggers and malicious software. This creates an amazing opportunity for the hacker to get unfettered access to unsecured devices on the same network.

The biggest threat to free WiFi security is the ability for the hacker to position himself between you and the connection point. So instead of talking directly with the hotspot, you’re sending your information through the hacker, who then relays it on to the access point. Typically the hacker uses a small device called a WiFi Pineapple which they can conceal in a small backpack. The WiFi Pineapple essentially spoofs the same name as the free hotspot and makes your laptop or tablet connect to it before connecting to the actual free public WiFi.

While working in this setup, the hacker has access to every piece of information you’re sending out on the Internet: important emails, credit card information and even security credentials to your business network. Once the hacker has that information, he can — at his leisure — access your systems as if he were you.

Hackers can also use an unsecured WiFi connection to distribute malware. If you allow file-sharing across a network, the hacker can easily plant infected software on your computer. Some ingenious hackers have even managed to hack the connection point itself, causing a pop-up window to appear during the connection process offering an upgrade to a piece of popular software. Clicking the window installs the malware.

As mobile WiFi becomes increasingly common, you can expect Internet security issues and public WiFi risks to grow over time. But this doesn’t mean you have to stay away from free WiFi and tether yourself to a desk again. The vast majority of hackers are simply going after easy targets, and taking a few precautions should keep your information safe. Here are some simple measures you can take to protect yourself.

Use a VPN or Citrix Connection

A virtual private network (VPN) connection of some sort is a must when connecting to your business through an unsecured connection, like a public WiFi hotspot. Many companies are using Citrix to establish an encrypted tunnel for employees to access the corporate network and applications. At the same time it provides high performance (which traditional VPN’s sometime lack) so employees working remotely get a similar work experience as if they were in the office. Even if a hacker manages to position himself in the middle of your connection, the data here will be strongly encrypted. Since most hackers are after an easy target, they’ll likely discard stolen information rather than put it through a lengthy decryption process.

Use SSL Connections

HTTPSIf you aren’t connected through a Citrix or VPN connection when Internet browsing, you can still add a layer of encryption to your communication. Enable the “Always Use HTTPS”option on websites that you visit frequently, or that require you to enter some kind of credentials. Remember that hackers understand how people reuse passwords, so your username and password for some random website may be the same as it is for your bank or corporate network, and sending these credentials in an unencrypted manner could open the door to a smart hacker. Most websites that require an account or credentials have the “HTTPS” option somewhere in their settings.

Turn Off Sharing

When connecting to the Internet at a public place, you’re unlikely to want to share anything. You can turn off sharing from the system preferences or Control Panel, depending on your OS, or let Windows turn it off for you by choosing the “Public” option the first time you connect to a new, unsecured network.

Avoid Sensitive Websites

If your on a public WiFi and aren’t connected through a secure connection (Citrix, VPN), your safest bet is to not log into sensitive sites like a bank account for example. Wait until you get back home or the office network, or any secured network that you trust.

Don Not Run Updates

An example of a more sophisticated but effective trick a hacker will use is the fake adobe flash update. While you’re connected to the public WiFi network they can send your device a fake software update that looks identical to the real thing. An unsuspecting user will run the update, but in reality they have allowed the hacker to install software that gives them complete control of the device. The hacker can use the webcam, lock the device, browse through your data, etc. Their ultimate goal is to wait until the laptop is connected back to your corporate network, then make their way to the company file server and deploy ransomware.

Keep WiFi Off When You Don’t Need It

Even if you haven’t actively connected to a network, the WiFi hardware in your computer is still transmitting data between any network within range. There are security measures in place to prevent this minor communication from compromising you, but not all wireless routers are the same, and hackers can be a pretty smart bunch. If you’re just using your computer to work on a Word or Excel document, keep your WiFi off. As a bonus, you’ll also experience a much longer battery life.

Stay Protected

Sometimes the last line of defense is  good anti-virus software or malware protection. Ensure your device not only has a robust security software package, but that it is constantly updated and patched. Your IT department should make sure all security updates and virus definitions are updated. Sometime having anti-virus can give you a false sense of security though because if it isn’t kept up to date it may not catch the latest threats hackers are using.

Throughout any business traveler’s life there’s going to come a time when an unsecured, free, public WiFi hotspot is the only connection available, and your work simply has to get done right then. Like any tool it is important to know how to use it safely and effectively so we hope this article helps you while you are out on the road. Understanding public WiFi risks will ensure your important business data as well as your personal information doesn’t become compromised.

Posted in: