Security Concerns on WiFi Networks – How do we overcome them?

We all love the convenience of WiFi to stay connected anywhere our laptops take us. In fact, you may be reading this article on your wireless-enabled laptop now. But just as the availability of WiFi services proliferate, so does the number of hackers ready to take advantage of unsuspecting road warriors. Now, in addition to long check-in and security lines, the uninformed have one more thing to be anxious about at the airport–identity thieves.

The major concern of users at Wi-Fi hotspots, beyond not being able to connect, is security. These types of wireless networks are inherently “unsecure.” This is because encryption methods such as WEP and WPA, which are usually used to protect private wireless networks, aren’t implemented due to the complexities of supporting users. Furthermore, using WEP or WPA means you’ll have to advertise the “private” encryption key(s). This kills the whole idea of using encryption, because wireless eavesdroppers then have the key(s) to quickly decode the Wi-Fi hotspot traffic.

WiFi hotspots are usually ripe for exploitation by hackers. Once a free WiFi hotspot is launched, there suddenly sprouts up a couple of more “free” WiFi networks that promise to allow you to access the Internet for free. More often than not, these happen to be fake WiFi hotspots that invite you to get fooled into logging onto their networks. After that, stealing your personal and sensitive data is hardly a magic trick.

What’s worse is most people have the habit of instruct their operating systems to “remember” a particular network (or SSID). Now, if one any of their subsequent visits, one of these fake WiFi networks configure the name of their SSID as that of the one already given permission to, on a person’s computer, the computer gets logged onto the network automatically, without the knowledge of the user.

Users who connect to these “free” networks are at great risk of experiencing a “channeling” attack. “Channeling” is a common practice used by hackers and identity thieves to conduct man-in-the-middle attacks, with the objective of stealing user names, passwords, and other sensitive data transmitted by the user. The practice is disturbingly simple to carry out: By setting up an unauthorized access point in an airport lounge, hackers can easily trap passwords and other information without the user’s knowledge.

Many Wi-Fi hotspot users don’t understand the issues related to using public wireless networks, and so they don’t take any steps to ensure their personal documents, privacy and identity are safe. The same goes with the people installing the hotspots. They may not be aware of the issues they face, or the fact that they can take a few steps to help secure user access. All it needs is a bit of prevention from the user’s side and public WiFi usage can be so very enjoyable.

  1. Always connect to an advertised WiFi network only
    Whenever you wish to connect to a public WiFi network in an establishment (be it a hotel, mall, a coffee shop or even a bus stop), connect only to a WiFi network (SSID) whose name is publicly advertised by the same establishment. In case it isn’t advertised, approach the reception or the store owner, for details on the WiFi network.
  2. Shut off your WiFi card, when not in use
    It is always best practice to turn off your WiFi when you do not need a Wireless network. It is better not to just “stay on the network”, at least not on a public WiFi network.
  3. Never enter a password unless the URL is encrypted
    Now, this is a bit trickier than the other precautions listed in this blog post. Every time you land up on a website that asks you to input your password, be it your email, bank website or otherwise, always take a glance at the URL address bar of your browser. What does it say? Does the url start with a ‘http’ or a ‘https’. Now, what ‘https’ does is encrypt the data that you send over the Internet. Yes, that includes your password too. So, if the URL starts with ‘https’, simply stop worrying and log in. However, if it says ‘http’, then try changing it to ‘https’ and reload the page. Most email providers and all bank website provide SSL security over the web (the ‘s’ in ‘https’ stands for ‘secured’). So, this should not be a problem. However, in case the website doesn’t provide a SSL login, then it is better to wait till you get to your ‘Home’ or ‘Office’ networks to log into those services.
  4. Use a VPN connection, whenever possible, to encrypt your data
    One of the most common tools that users of hotspots neglect to use is a Virtual Private Network (VPN) application. It’s ironic, because good VPN software is free, and once you’ve installed one, entering one password can put what you’re doing in a secure tunnel.
  5. Do not allow sharing of folders and files
    Turn off your shared folders and files when you are on a public network. This is to ensure that amateur hackers don’t end up logging into your system and steal your personal files.
  6. Run a comprehensive security suite
    We can never stress enough on the necessity of a security suite that includes a good anti-virus software,and an anti-phishing software.
  7. Keep your Firewall running
    Firewall software, for blocking hackers and other threats, exists within all major operating systems, Windows, Mac OS, and Linux. The firewall built into both Linux and Mac OS X are actually very good. Windows users who want to find a good, free solution can go with Zone Alarm Free.
  8. Avoid Internet Explorer
    There nothing personal against Microsoft, but one of the big reasons people gravitate to browsers like Firefox, Google Chrome, Opera and Safari is that they are simply less of a target for hackers, and also have fewer exposed vulnerabilities that can be exploited.

So, as you can see, “free” WiFi hotspots do pose a couple of security challenges that hinder the growth of the WiFi sector in the larger perspective. But if we continue to play it safe and smart, we can stay one step ahead of them and enjoy all the comforts of a secure WiFi world.