Put up a sign or mention the words “Free Wi-Fi”, and you’ll likely get a stampede of laptop and mobile device users scrambling to log in. It’s a response that’s become like an automatic reflex among many of us – despite repeated warnings from security advisors and the media about how dangerous an unprotected wireless network, or public wi-fi connection, can be.
To make things worse, many of our devices are configured to act upon this reflex on our behalf, automatically forging a connection to whichever wireless network they can find within range. It’s a situation that can set us up as easy targets for eavesdroppers, file sniffers, credential, identity, and data thieves, or distributors of malware.
In this article – in addition to driving home the potential dangers of automatically connecting to public Wi-Fi – we’ll be setting out strategies on how to keep yourself safe while negotiating your way through wireless networks.
The Dangers of Public Wi-Fi
An opinion poll conducted in 2017 suggests that more people are wary of public Wi-Fi networks than they are of public toilet seats – yet a study by privatewifi.com in the same year confirmed that 75% of American internet users admitted to logging into their personal email accounts while on public Wi-Fi.
So there’s an awareness that public Wi-Fi presents a threat – but convenience, the prospect of a free data connection, and perhaps what’s only a vague knowledge of the actual dangers they face, keep people coming back for more. They might think twice if they realized that:
Free public Wi-Fi networks such as those provided by cafes or hotels don’t encrypt their data traffic – so plain text, unscrambled images, and sound flying over the network are all there for enterprising hackers to intercept or collect. So passwords, financial information, and sensitive images aren’t safe.
Sessions may also be hijacked, or taken over completely. “Man-in-the-Middle” or MitM attacks are commonplace on public Wi-Fi, with hackers using a variety of tools to intercept data emerging from a victim’s device, and tricking that device into thinking that the hacker’s own machine is the network provider.
Even those networks that have a login password are unsecured, as the same network plays host to other people, who can quite easily gain access to other devices or systems connected to it – especially with the selection of Wi-Fi network hacking tools and utilities currently available on the web.
“Honeypot” or “Evil Twin” Wi-Fi networks can be readily set up by hackers using signal boosters to override an on-site network, and substituting their own Wi-Fi hotspot (often complete with a similar name and look to the current venue), for unwitting visitors to connect to.
Having numerous devices and individuals connected to the same wireless network can easily enable cyber-criminals and spies to distribute malware (spyware, ransomware, etc.) – some of which may be extremely sophisticated and undetectable.
Firewalls and anti-virus/anti-malware solutions can’t be relied upon as proof against unsecured wireless networks. So if you’re looking to protect yourself on public Wi-Fi, you’ll need to adopt some good habits and use other methods of protection.
Set to Forget
There’s a feature on many mobile devices and Windows-based computer systems that remembers any wireless networks that you’ve connected to in the past, and re-connects to them automatically whenever you’re in range – without informing you, first. If the Wi-Fi network in question is unsecured or worse, bogus, this can expose you and your data to all kinds of threats, without your knowledge.
On most systems, this capability isn’t enabled by default – but it pays to verify this, to be sure that “Wi-Fi auto-connect” or similar menu options aren’t currently activated. There may also be a “Forget This Network” option available on your device, which can be used to selectively exclude Wi-Fi hotspots that you don’t wish to connect to.
For Windows, there are a number of tutorials and online resources, detailing how to disable the automatic Wi-Fi connection features of this platform.
Use a Virtual Private Network (VPN)
Using a Virtual Private Network (VPN) application or service will protect your identity and data on public Wi-Fi, in a number of ways.
First, a VPN wraps or encapsulates all information emerging from your system in an envelope containing headers and metadata that mask your identity, and the nature of the data packets being transmitted.
The VPN also encrypts all data passing through it, using military-strength algorithms. Cracking this code would demand considerable time, energy, and resources on the part of anyone – hackers, ISPs, other agencies, etc. – wishing to make sense out of it.
And VPN services also operate from an array of geographically dispersed web servers. It’s the IP addresses of these VPN servers that are associated with your connection.
So if you were to use the InvinciBull™ from Finjan Mobile, not only would you have the choice of connecting from a server in any of dozens of countries, you’d also be using public Wi-Fi from an application which provides the unique combination of a fully-fledged VPN service, and a feature-rich web browser. This can give you protection on public Wi-FI in other ways, as we’ll see.
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Limit Your Activities Online
We’ve already noted that public Wi-Fi networks make it easier for cyber-criminals to monitor and steal personal information, financial data, and online credentials. So it makes sense for you to present them with as few opportunities to do so, as possible.
This means limiting your activities on public Wi-Fi to site visits and transactions that don’t require you to expose your login credentials, passwords, credit card numbers, or any other high-value personal information. If you need to do internet banking, wait until you have access to a secure network at home or in the office.
If you’re using the InvinciBull app, your web browser comes with a suite of tools for thwarting the attempts of websites, advertising networks, and other third parties from tracking or tracing you. The privacy scan panel at the bottom of the browser provides real-time monitoring as you negotiate your various destinations, and will indicate whether a site is safe, suspect, or dangerous.
Use Multi-Factor Authentication
Finally, if you’re using public Wi-Fi – and even if you’re not, for that matter – choosing the option to use multi-factor authentication on the sites you typically visit is a wise idea. This requires a two or more stage process for logging in and verifying your identity.
So, a site might ask for your account name and password, then transmit an SMS text security code (valid for one time only) to your phone or mobile device. Or you might have to scan your fingerprint or use a facial recognition scan, as a secondary validation measure.
Even if an eavesdropper manages to intercept the first stage of authentication, they’ll likely find it very hard to fulfill the second or subsequent conditions, to fully pose as you.
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