Free Public Wi-Fi: Is it a Trick or a Treat?

By Special Guest
Shane Buckley, CEO of Xirrus
October 26, 2016

Public Wi-Fi allows us to stay connected wherever we go. While the convenience drives us to connect more often, by no means does that indicate we’re in a safe zone. And for the most part, we understand this, but do it anyway.

In a recent survey, 91 percent of respondents said they don’t believe public Wi-Fi is secure, but 89 percent connect anyways. Jumping on public Wi-Fi presents more scares than ever before, and as we approach Halloween, these scares can haunt us more. Halloween forces us to keep an eye out for scary costumes and haunted houses, but public Wi-Fi could lead to much more real frights, such as data breaches or malicious viruses.

With Halloween around the corner, we reflect on the risks of public Wi-Fi and ask ourselves: is it a trick or a treat? So, be aware of five ways public Wi-Fi can fool users this Halloween:

  1. Haunted hotels: Free Wi-Fi stands as a touted amenity across hotel chains. But tread lightly when connecting, because hotels don’t typically provide the encryption needed for effectively protecting your data. Without a personal area network, you remain at risk of falling into the trap of a Wi-Fi-peddling hotel. 
  2. Ghosts in the network: Hackers take ghost-like forms. When using public Wi-Fi, a criminal could access your private data or even hack your private network – all unbeknownst to you. Avoid putting yourself at risk of a data breach or fraud by holding off on the temptation to use credit cards or input sensitive information over a public network – a characteristic most people still struggle with. According to a recent report, 42 percent of respondents admitted they shop on public Wi-Fi.
  3. Bandwidth (News - Alert) bogeymen: Applications will always drain bandwidth. In many cases, these video-intensive apps, cloud backups or updates cause bandwidth issues where they simply shouldn’t. Take streaming horror movies on Netflix in the workplace. Application control allows for organizations to prioritize the appropriate applications for the environment. In a coffee shop, that may mean business apps, whereas at a hotel, Netflix may take precedent.
  4. Ghostly Wi-Fi: You see the Wi-Fi name, and click connect, but you’re out of luck and can’t get on the network. When this occurs, too many devices flood the network. Stadiums, convention centers, campuses and other high-density environments are often the biggest culprits, particularly if they don’t utilize Wi-Fi networks purpose built for so many simultaneous connections.
  5. Infectious devices – Home and work networks often provide the safety we need. But what happens when we step outside and connect to a third, public network? Because the third network could be more vulnerable, users are susceptible to downloading malware on a public connection (i.e. coffee shop) and bringing the virus into a secure network (i.e. home or work).

We connect to Public Wi-Fi everywhere, sometimes whether on purpose or automatically. We connect at a coffee shop, waiting at the airport or even for entertainment or work in-flight. Understanding the dangers of using a public Wi-Fi network remains the first step to staying safe. In turn, it’ll put pressure on commercial businesses to provide options for secure connections – such as secure personal networks via a simple, one-time process that authenticates all devices. You should always make sure you use the exact SSID advertised by the provider, encrypt all of your data, and put a PIN or passcode on all mobile devices.

And on this Halloween, don’t fall for the tricks.  

Edited by Alicia Young
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