There’s nothing more exciting than the idea of getting something for free. However, the savvy know that nothing is truly free, there’s always a trade-off. When it comes to understanding free public Wi-Fi risks, the trade-off is not understood well enough, and many run the risk of falling for hacking schemes.
According to research of almost 32 million Wi-Fi hotspots in the world, about 24.7% do not use reliable forms of encryption.
What does that mean?
Wired Equivalent Privacy or WEP is a protocol used to encrypt data transferred over Wi-Fi. WEP was created in the 1990s, and since then it’s become the standard for securing Wi-Fi hotspots.
If you’ve ever set up a Wi-Fi modem in your home, you may recall having seen the WEP settings in your modem’s user interface.
While widely used, very few people are aware that WEP is an unreliable solution for creating a safer Internet surfing experience because it was cracked in 2001.
While the cracking of WEP back then required more than five million packets of data to succeed, today anyone with the right collection of software can successfully crack WEP encryption.
How to hack WEP
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In fact, WEP is viewed as so unsecure that IT security professionals see it as no different to
open networks (networks not secured by passwords).
Public Wi-Fi risks: what’s the worst that can happen?
The threats people expose themselves to in free Wi-Fi environments have serious and often costly consequences, both personally and for the businesses they work for.
Hackers position themselves in between users logging onto the network and the connection point. This is referred to as a Man-in-the-middle attack.
This means that your data is passed directly to the hacker first, and then the hacker passes it on to the destination it was intended for.
What kinds of data do hackers have access to?
The hacker can access every piece of personal data you’re sending from your computer out to the Internet. This includes: sensitive business emails, credit card numbers and security credentials used to enter your business network.
With your data collected, the hacker can access your personal computer, business systems and more, under the guise of your user profiles.
Hackers also use free Wi-Fi networks to distribute malware that sits on your computer and captures sensitive data by recording your keystrokes and the sites you visit.
How to protect yourself in the wild
Use anti-virus software
Most anti-virus solutions perform regular scans and come with a firewall to prevent intrusion attacks. Installing anti-virus software is a smart move, as it makes it easier for you to keep the overall health of your computer intact, and acts as a preventative measure for hackers trying to steal your data.
Always use a virtual private network
A virtual private network (VPN) connection is an impenetrable tunnel that allows the safe access to business systems, especially when you’re on the road and need to work. Using VPN, makes it hard for a hacker to access your data, even if the hacker is positioned between you and the connection point (modem).
Keep Wi-Fi off when not needed
Wi-Fi is often turned on by default. In cases where free Wi-Fi hotspots allow users to connect automatically, this can cause a security problem. Keeping your Wi-Fi turned off when not needed is the simple solution.
Look for and use SSL connections
If you don’t have access to a VPN, enabling the “Always Use HTTPS” option on websites will work too, especially for sites you visit regularly.
Using a tool that forces HTTPS connections to websites, like HTTPS Everywhere, allows your browser to immediately establish an SSL connection when you are browsing the web.
Turn off file sharing when you join a public network
A common feature of most computers is the option to share personal files when joining new networks. When logging onto a free Wi-Fi network, ensure that you turn this feature off. This way access to private and company data is restricted.
Using public Wi-Fi presents many risks, however there are ways to protect yourself. Using anti-virus software, VPNs, browser extensions that force HTTPS website connections, and paying attention to computer settings can prevent hackers from accessing private and business data.