Why, you ask? Hackers like it, because it’s easy to intercept your wireless communications. By collecting the data you transmit wirelessly, a hacker can obtain your ID and Password for your Email, Yahoo, Facebook, Online Banking, etc. You may have your computer protected from unauthorized access, but what you send over the wireless network at the local coffee shop or eatery may be wide-open for anyone to see.
Most data thieves would use hacking programs that allow them to see the packets being transferred, and they only need to be nearby the wireless hotspot to intercept the data being passed. Others might set up their own wireless network and either name it something similar to what the business is offering or just give it any old name and wait for someone who’s willing to use a wireless signal, no matter where it comes from.
It is better for businesses to encrypt their connection and give out individual access to each customer via password or Encryption key. Most businesses that offer free WiFi access choose not to encrypt the signal, because it’s more difficult for their customers to access it and the kid behind the register to support it.
So, what’s the solution?
Don’t use public WiFi internet access for ANYTHING that requires you to enter a user name and password and don’t purchase ANYTHING online while using a public wireless hotspot. That means avoid using your email as well. What about your corporate network? That is a question for your IT department. Most will use encryption methods to ‘hide’ the pertinent data such as ID’s and Passwords and the date you send back and forth to the corporate network. However, not all do and most do not protect you when you are just browsing the web. If you are unsure, ask.
If you are going to test your luck, at the very least, make sure your computer security is turned on (personal firewall, anti-virus and anti-spyware) and your file sharing is turned off. It won’t protect the data you send, but it may keep someone from accessing files directly on your computer. Also, make sure the wireless hotspot you connect to is the one actually being offered by the restaurant, hotel, etc. Ask the proprietor the name of the WiFi access they offer before you connect.
Here are a couple of other options that can keep you off of the typical public wireless hotspots.
– If you have a smart phone, try using that instead. Most can give you access to Online Banking and have Facebook apps.
– You may also want to consider using mobile internet access provided by your cell phone provider. 3G and 4G (WiMax), while not inexpensive, they do provide decent to great internet speeds and also provide protected access.
– If you’re staying in a hotel with internet access, try to use an Ethernet cable instead of wireless access.
As a reminder, these sites should not to be accessed while on a WiFi Hotspot:
– Online Banking or anything with your financial information
– Anything requiring a username and password to access
– Any sites you wouldn’t want prying eyes to know you’ve accessed
What about WiFi at home? Well if you are not required to enter a password or encryption key to use your WiFi at home – all of the above applies. Do you want the Smith’s next door reading those emails to grandma? How about the Wilson family across the street – do you mind that they use your WiFi to cruise the Internet? If your WiFi at home is not protected, they can.
While WiFi Hotspots can be convenient, is it worth the risk of sharing all of your personal data to anyone that may be looking for it? If it is something you wouldn’t want in the hands of the unknown, don’t send it over WiFi.