Free Wi-Fi Can Save You Pennies But Cost You Millions

In Ofcom’s recently published Communications Market Report, the British regulator revealed that people using Wi-Fi in public places give the least thought to their security.


Photo: Nejron Photo / Shutterstock

The report says that while 77 percent of people aren’t concerned about security when using public Wi-Fi, almost 75 percent of them said that they don’t restrict their online activity on a public Wi-Fi connection.

From video streaming to downloading, these users don’t give a second thought to security over a public connection.

Also, a number of Wi-Fi users consider the faster connection an advantage and don’t bother using their own 3G or 4G connection while they are out of their homes.

Interestingly, about 72 percent of the surveyed people disagreed when asked if they think that the public Wi-Fi is any less secure as compared to their home Internet connection. A more shocking result was that 67 percent of people don’t have password protection on their Wi-Fi connection at home.

The report makes it evident that despite continuous cyber attacks happening all around the world, many people fail to understand the real magnitude of the threat behind unsafe Wi-Fi.

Among such incidents was the one where three US men went driving around in search of unprotected wireless networks. In between ‘wardriving’ and installing keyloggers, this small group managed to dupe companies of about $3 million.

In another incident, a SWAT team raided a home possessing an unsecured Wi-Fi connection that was being used by a malicious entity. This incident left the home with a broken door, a smashed window, and a stun grenade in the living room.

Five US politicians also got a taste of it when they found out that their Facebook accounts have been hacked after they used a free and unsecured Wi-Fi connection.

Last year’s findings revealed that a number of business houses make use of Wi-Fi to create secret shopper profiles. The in-flight Wi-Fi networks have also been spying flyers on behalf of the government.

Forbes, in a report published in March, came up with the following suggestions to help you stay safe while using public Wi-Fi:

Authenticate the Wi-Fi Name

In one of the easiest hacking techniques, hackers create their own Wi-Fi network at a public place and name it similar to the name of a close-by business or shop. While you assume that you are browsing the web on this network just as you normally would, the fact is that all your browsing activities are routed to the hacker’s private network. Therefore, you must make sure that you are using the actual Wi-Fi network provided by the shop.

Ensure ‘HTTPS’ at the Beginning of the URL

‘HTTPS’ encrypts all the communication taking place between the website and your computer. The ‘S’ at the end of HTTPS stands for SSL encryption.

Another indication of an encrypted communication channel is the padlock icon which shows up in the address bar. It is by far the easiest and the most effective method of encryption that can be used to prevent your data from being stolen. With HTTPS, even if your communication is intercepted, decoding it would be a difficult task. This secure protocol can only be implemented by websites on the back-end.

HTTPS has long been a part of websites for financial institutions. Also, a number of major companies such as Twitter, Facebook, and Google use this secure protocol. If you are using any online shopping website, you must ensure that the payment page is SSL enabled.

SSL’s efficiency is based on the fact that the website’s identity is verified by the browser even before the encryption takes place. In case the browser fails to verify the purpose of the website, it would throw a pop-up warning, informing the user about an untrusted security certificate. While this warning message is a false alarm at times, if it comes up when you are browsing on a public Wi-Fi, you must not continue opening the website.

Using a VPN Service

While SSL encryption varies based on the websites, a Virtual Private Network (VPN) connection ensures that all your browsing data is secured, irrespective of the sites you browse. Once you sign up for the VPN service, your data connection is routed to a physical server, which is under the control of the VPN company. So even if your data is encrypted, the hacker would only be able to see the encrypted data exchanged between you and the VPN server. Your device remains anonymous and the data seems to be coming from the VPN server.

Updated Software

With an ever evolving technology, it is important to regularly update the operating system and web browsers. Recently, Apple had to issue updates for iOS and OS X to eliminate a bug that tried to compromise the SSL encryption.

Data security can never be foolproof. While business owners and developers should take adequate steps for data security, the users must also educate themselves. A little extra effort is all it would take for you to freely access any Wi-Fi connection in public.