Public WiFi: Is It Safe or Are You Putting Your Data at Risk?

Wi-Fi is almost everywhere, which is beneficial for people on the go. Whether it’s airport terminals, on the bus or train or sitting in a coffee shop, you can stay connected with colleagues and clients and never be out of touch. But just how safe is free public Wi-Fi?

GFI software announced the findings of an independent survey, conducted by Opinion Matters, which says that 95.6% of commuters, of 1,000 surveyed, put their companies’ data at risk by using free public Wi-Fi.

“The research findings reveal a stark and concerning trend among commuters – one of using their personal devices to catch up on work during their commuting downtime, but doing so over highly insecure internet connections that can be easily intercepted by other users or the operator of the access point,” explains Walter Scott, CEO of GFI Software, adding that users’ attitudes to data security has become relaxed.

A report published in USA Today earlier this year stated that you have a much higher chance of being hacked using a public connection than your house being broken into.

There are widely available software applications called packet sniffers that are easy to find online, explains Monica Hamilton, Director of SMB Product and Solutions Marketing at McAfee, these programs allow you to see information on the public network. “I can wait for someone to log on and I can see all that data in the clear because they are not using a VPN.”

So what if you need to be connected and a free WiFi is available – how do you stay safe? One way is to use a VPN. VPN is a virtual private network that encrypts the connection while you are using it, making it much more difficult for potential hackers.

“If they’re not using a VPN, I can grab every single packet and see all the information in the clear – passwords, usernames, email content, customer records. So that’s the number one risk”.

Another method of protecting your data is encryption. Encryption of your hard drive on all valuable documents is another strong recommendation from Monica in protecting your information.

Monica also warns of “evil twin” Wi-Fi networks, which are false connections that mimic others, advising users to be vigilant of multiple connections bearing the same name as one could be a hacker and to look for something such as a misspelled network name.

The Opinion Matters survey also refers to people’s preferred devices, unsurprising with the rise of BYOD. Many fear that the device itself could be stolen but don’t take equal measures with their data. 59.8% of respondents fear being robbed while using their smartphone or tablet in public but only 26.9% of commuters are concerned about data being compromised when using public Wi-Fi.

It’s still in its infancy, explains Hassan Bawab, CEO of digital marketing agency Magic Logix, and people should not assume that hotspots are secure just because they are provided by established, successful businesses.

“The demographic of customers who visit many of these public Wi-Fi hotspots are also the same target demographic that criminals and data thieves would like to harvest and steal data from,” he adds. “Without encryption, your data will become as available as public TV.”

Protecting your business and its data is essential, so make sure you take the necessary steps to protect yourself on any open network that you might be using.

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About Jonathan Keane

Jonathan is a freelance writer who writes in the fields of business, tech and entertainment. You’ll find him on Twitter @J_K9