Free Wi-Fi Spots Are Security Risks for the Unwary

Unsuspecting and easy to attack – users of public Wi-Fi spots are a hacker’s dream target. Cybercriminals don’t wear cat-burglar masks and striped t-shirts, so it may not be easy to see them. On the other hand, the smart user of a free Wi-Fi hotspot knows that he or she should assume that hackers are lying virtually in wait. The terrain can vary: coffee shops, airports, restaurants, libraries, bookstores, fast food outlets and even schools can all be dangerous. Unfortunately, statistics show that users in general, consumer or business, have a lot to learn if they want to bring their risk back down to reasonable levels.

Hacker tactics include spying on users’ messages (using packet sniffers), converting them into corrupted messages (“man in the middle” attacks), or sending them off to fake network addresses. With bank account information, corporate database access details and even complete identities at stake, you’d think users would be more careful. Unfortunately, statistics suggest that as many as 85% of those looking for a connection then link up despite warnings that their data can be viewed and accessed by a third party.

As a business, it is possible to tackle the problem in a number of ways. The first thing to do is to understand why such risky access happens. One reason is that users are unaware of the risks: in that case, awareness campaigns are a good start. Another is that users hope to save money by connecting at no charge. By funding the possibility for users to link up via 3G or 4G networks, the free Wi-Fi trap can be avoided. You can also put virtual private networking in place to make sure that your users always communicate through a secure tunnel, even if the outer layer happens to be a coffee shop’s free Wi-Fi service. Just one of these initiatives could help save financial and reputational loss later; to be sure, apply all three.