Thwarting the Security Perils of Public Wi-Fi

The workforce is evolving quickly and becoming increasingly more mobile—for both big and small companies. Technological advances enable employees to access company information and to do their jobs from virtually anywhere. One outcome is that workplaces and work spaces are being remade, with some companies getting rid of permanent work space altogether and electing to use co working space, day offices, and rented conference rooms.

The forecast is that this work space evolution will continue. IDC predicts that the U.S. mobile workforce population will grow to over 105 million workers by 2020, accounting for nearly three-quarters of the total workforce. Mobile work takes different forms and occurs from different places.

Some mobile work is done from home offices, while other work is done from rented meeting space and day offices. In these cases, workers access the Internet through private Wi-Fi that is gated and reduces the possibilities of security hacking. But other mobile work is done from coffee shops, public transport, libraries, and other places where public Wi-Fi access is the norm. Growing numbers of cities even offer free Wi-Fi access in downtown areas and other locations.

However, as these Wi-Fi connections are not protected with encryption, cyber criminals and malicious actors can gain access to the emails, passwords, addresses, credit card information, and other personal data. The following are a few of the ways they can do so:

  1. Man-in-the-middle attacks.

    A man-in-the-middle attack is where a third party hijacks a communication between two users. The link between the user (client) and the server is broken and the bad actor shows their version of the site the user is accessing.
  2. Fake (cloned) Wi-Fi connections.

    Bad actors set up a fake access point and dupe users into accessing it to connect to the Internet. The activity of each user—including info she or he sends—is taken by the bad actor.
  3. Packet sniffing.

    Bad actors can use freeware that businesses use to analyze web traffic and identify vulnerabilities and cybercriminals to gain access to data being transmitted over a non-encrypted Wi-Fi connection.
  4. Sidejacking (session hijacking).

    Sidejacking is similar to packet sniffing. However, rather than using the information retroactively, the bad actor uses it on-location to hijack user sessions and gain access to accounts into which the user is logged.
  5. Shoulder surfing.

    Bad actors lurk in-person in public settings to capture usernames and passwords as well as other forms of private information that users type into their devices when accessing accounts and other services.
  6. Brute-force/cracking attacks.

    These attacks mass test a huge number of passwords to gain access to their accounts and/or services.
  7. Cracking attacks.

    These use specialized software tools to trick the route into revealing the passwords of users.

As most of us must use public Wi-Fi to access our email, SaaS-based apps, and other accounts to get our jobs done, simply not using it is not an option. The upside is that there are some steps that you can take to protect your information when using public Wi-Fi:

  1. Public network sharing.

    Deactivate public network sharing (e.g., screen sharing, file sharing, printer sharing, etc.) when using a public Wi-Fi connection. These are productivity enablers when working from home or workplace. They are a security risk when using public Wi-Fi. Bad actors can get access to important files and documents stored in the cloud or employ a reverse back to break into a connected device that gives them access to other connected devices.
  2. Firewall enabled.

    Keep your built-in firewall enabled at all times and consider using a security product with an even better firewall. Too many users turn off their firewalls to rid themselves of popups and notifications.
  3. Secure websites.

    Ensure that the websites you use to access personal and business information are secure. Websites that start with https:// employ secure socket layer (SSL) technology and encrypt communications.
  4. Virtual Private Network (VPN).

    Public Wi-Fi networks are unsecured. A VPN hides user IP addresses by encrypting the connection and allowing them to browse in anonymity. This prevents bad actors from accessing past data and listening to browsing sessions in real time.
  5. Wi-Fi connection.

    If you aren't accessing services and accounts or sending email, turn off your Wi-Fi connection. This removes the security risks of sniffing or malicious software.
  6. Update and patch.

    Keeping updated on your operating system and security software helps thwart signature-based attacks and known vulnerabilities.
  7. Antivirus software.

    Having an antivirus software with virus scanning on your device is a must.
  8. ANTI-SPYWARE software.

    Many antivirus software products also come with anti-spyware. If not, then you can add specialized anti-spyware to your device to detect and remove spyware.
  9. Financial transactions.

    Because bad actors use sniffing software to identify personal information, users should think twice before making a purchase or enacting a financial transaction when using public Wi-Fi.
  10. Secure browser.

    Because browsers are the first target for many malware programs, keeping up with the latest browser version with up-to-date security patches and modifying your browser settings are critical.
  11. Two-factor authentication.

    This combines a known and an unknown security pass code before a user can log into her or his accounts. Even if they gain access to a known password, they still can't log into the account because they do not have the security code.


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