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What “Free Public WiFi” Is and Why You Should Avoid It

What “Free Public WiFi” Is and Why You Should Avoid It



Hang out in airports, coffee shops, or other laptop-friendly spots for a while, and you’ll find “Free Public WiFi.” It never gets you through to the actual web, because it’s actually a weird Windows XP quirk—one you shouldn’t connect to.

“Free Public WiFi” was never free, and never public, and not actually a Wi-Fi service. It likely started as a joke or prank, but then spread around the world because of a quirk in pre-SP 3 versions of Windows XP:

When a computer running an older version of XP can’t find any of its “favorite” wireless networks, it will automatically create an ad hoc network with the same name as the last one it connected to -– in this case, “Free Public WiFi.” Other computers within range of that new ad hoc network can see it, luring other users to connect. And who can resist the word “free?”

“Don’t do your online banking or anything sensitive on a public Wi-Fi network.” The advice is out there, but why can using a public Wi-Fi network actually be dangerous? And wouldn’t online banking be secure, as it’s encrypted?

There are a few big problems with using a public Wi-Fi network. The open nature of the network allows for snooping, the network could be full of compromised machines, or  — most worryingly — the hotspot itself could be malicious. Most of the time, you’re probably okay if you accidentally hit “Connect” on Free Public WiFi, as you’re just trying to connect to a computer that’s unwittingly rebroadcasting its own inability to connect. But there could be occasion for someone with evil deeds in their heart to allow the connection and grab logins or other data from your connection, so try and block your system from ever connecting to “Free Public WiFi” in your network settings. In most cases, the actually free Wi-Fi will come with a more legit-sounding name, like AT&T Wifi or something akin. But what are the risks from logging on to a free network, often in return for supplying your name and an email and ticking the box in the hope of not getting spammed from here to eternity in return for the joys of surfing for free? What can you realistically do to make your free WiFi experience as secure as possible?18ixrynkqu384png

Firstly, try and stick to browsing secure websites that have the “HTTPS” prefix only, and not just when you reach their payment pages. The benefit of doing so is that the pages you view are encrypted from any other users that could be on the network. The privacy and security implications from browsing on unencrypted sites mean that login and password information could be seen by anyone using the network for malicious purposes. This is the risk with public WiFi – can you be sure that the network you are using is truly legitimate? You could log on to what you think is a public network provided by a café, bar or municipal initiative thinking it comes courtesy of the London Underground when in fact it could be run by a criminal intent on monitoring users and acquiring log in and password data along with payment details as well. The majority of web based email providers and the larger social networks now use HTTPS connections, but it is worth making sure it is the genuine log in page that you have reached when using public WiFi and not a counterfeit designed to relieve you of your passwords.

Secondly, use a Virtual Private Network (VPN). These automatically encrypt all of your online traffic. They are often provided by employers to access office networks, but can also be obtained freely, such as by using Expat Shield. Thirdly, use two factor identification where it is available. This involves the entry of both a password and a unique code that is sent to you via text message or App to ensure your identity when you login. Fourthly, if you aren’t using your WiFi or Bluetooth, deactivate them as they are simply opening you up to more avenues of attack.

Fifthly, avoid downloading any Apps or providing your email address in return for free WiFi. Think about where your information is going. It can be worth having a email address that is used solely for travel and use of free WiFi and other promotions where an address is required rather than provide one that is of practical and commercial value to you.

The biggest risk remains the loss of your equipment. Never leave a smartphone, tablet or laptop unguarded for a second, as that is all it takes for a device to be snatched and all of your personal and potentially your business data to be lost.

The Risks of an Open Network

The same features that make free WiFi hotspots desirable for consumers make them desirable for hackers; namely, that it requires no authentication to establish a network connection. 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 to the hacker, who then relays it on.

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.

Use a VPN

A virtual private network (VPN) connection is a must when connecting to your business through an unsecured connection, like a WiFi hotspot. 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

You aren’t likely to have a VPN available for general Internet browsing, but 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 forum 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.

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

Even individuals who take all the possible public WiFi security precautions are going to run across issues from time to time. It’s just a fact of life in this interconnected age. That’s why it’s imperative to keep a robust Internet security solution installed and running on your machine. These solutions can constantly run a malware scan on your files, and will always scan new files as they are downloaded. The top consumer security software will also offer business protection solutions, so you can protect yourself while you’re out and about, and your servers back at the office, all at the same time.

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. Understanding public WiFi risks will ensure your important business data doesn’t become just another hacking statistic.

Want more cyber safety tips or infomation about public WiFi networks? Are you ready to empower your staff with cloud computing to help them along? Let’s talk. Call us today.