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The Dangers of Free Wi-Fi and How to Surf Safely

By Dennis Jones

Wi-Fi Security: The Web is a Scary Place

When it comes to using free, or public, Wi-Fi, users often make the Devil’s bargain of convenience over security. “It’s accessible when and where I need it,” users rationalize, “so how unsafe could it be?” Well, the short answer is incredibly unsafe. Requiring no authorization or authentication, free Wi-Fi is an attractive point of attack for lurking hackers. Here are the risks.

  • Man-in-the-middle attacks are among the most common Wi-Fi attacks. They occur when hackers insert themselves into a conversation between two parties (most likely you and a vendor), impersonating either party to gain access to information. This kind of attack allows hackers to intercept, send and/or receive data intended for someone else.

  • Packet Sniffing allows attackers to capture data transmitted over a shared network. Hackers use packet sniffer programs to capture unencrypted (or unprotected) data like passwords and usernames. With these credentials, hackers can gain quick control over a network.

  • Data modification occurs after attackers have read your data; they can alter it without your knowledge or that of your intended receiver.

  • Identity spoofing happens when an IP address is falsely assumed. Attackers might use special programs to construct IP packets that appear to originate from valid addresses, like corporate addresses. But after accessing the network with a valid IP address, attackers can then modify, reroute or even delete data.

  • Denial-of-service attacks are also becoming huge security risks; even the Pentagon is ramping up its cyber-defenses against this kind of attack. Denial-of-service attacks are exactly what they sound like–they prevent normal use of a computer or network by valid users. Hackers first gain access to the network, before diverting attention away from the intrusion, so they can continue to attack in any of the following ways:

    • Sending invalid data to applications or network services, which causes abnormal termination.

    • Flooding a computer or the entire network with traffic until a shutdown occurs, because of the overload.

    • Blocking traffic, which results in a loss of access to network resources by authorized users.

Free Wi-Fi networks really are the Wild West of the Wi-Fi ecosystem, but luckily there are some easy ways to keep data safe. Don’t send sensitive information or do online banking over free Wi-Fi networks, and update your security software. What you might not know is that at this point, most of your data is going over a Wi-Fi network, which means you will need to supplement these common sense measures with multiple layers of security.

  1. Use a hidden credential feature to create a randomized pseudonym identity, which links back to your actual, user identity. Corporate credentials often get stolen, which then give hackers direct access to your corporate network.

  2. If you are a network administrator, make sure you deploy strict authentication and authorization measures to manage who gets on the network.

  3. And finally, make sure your corporate VPN is enabled. If your company doesn’t provision you with a corporate VPN, at least make sure you are masking and encrypting your online data over the most vulnerable segment of the Internet — the span between your device and the Internet gateway.

Now, go ahead and surf safely.