User beware: free WiFi hotspots


Public WiFi hotspots are great, but protect yourself when using them. Image: twicepix/Flickr/CC BY-SA

Nearly everyone these days has a laptop or hand held device they can use to connect to the internet while they are out and about. And free WiFi hotspots are available at more and more businesses and public venues. The temptation is great, but there can be serious security risks to using these generally-unsecured connections.

WiFi hotspots proliferating

In 2011, according the Wireless Broadband Alliance, the global number of WiFi hotspots grew to 1.3 million. By 2015, it projects, there will be 5.8 million. Public WiFi hotspots are a way to lure in customers, and they are not about to go away.

But you use them at your own risk.

Unsecured hazards

WiFi uses unencrypted radio signals, so others within the range of the network can eavesdrop on your activity. Worse, hackers can access whatever is on your hard drive, including personal and banking information that could be used to steal your identity.

Even worse, some hackers will set up phony Wi-Fi hotspots in public places like airports, designed to steal personal data. These traps have unassuming names like “Free Wi-Fi,” but the connection is only to another computer, and does not actually connect you to the internet.

Boingo’s Chief Technology Officer, Niels Jonker, discussed some things WiFi users can do to protect themselves.

What a difference an ‘S’ makes

“Open Wi-Fi, by its very nature, is insecure. This means that your best defense is a good offense. Make sure you’re only using SSL-encrypted services — which means logging in to instead of,” Jonker said.

Jonker also warned against going on any site that warns of “certificate” issues when using public WiFi hotspots. “You should never use sites that give security warnings when on an open Wi-Fi network,” he said.

For security’s sake, Jonker recommends using a VPN.

Virtual private network

A virtual private network, or VPN, according to How Stuff Works, “is a private network that uses a public network (usually the Internet) to connect remote sites or users together. The VPN uses ‘virtual’ connections routed through the Internet from … [a] private network to the remote site. … By using a VPN, [users] ensure security — anyone intercepting the encrypted data can’t read it.”

“Most online service providers like Google and Yahoo! allow you to enforce SSL for all interactions with their services, which is a really, really good idea,” Jonker added.

Here are a few more simple precautions to take before connecting at a free hotspot:

  • Be sure your firewall is on.
  • Use a different password for each website.
  • Ask the management at whatever venue you are at if the hotspot you are about to connect with is their actual network.


Digital Matters
How Stuff Works

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