Building Better Habits: Protecting Ourselves from Public Wi-Fi Hacking

When we are little, our parents try their best to teach us good habits. Brush your teeth to keep cavities away, eat fruits and vegetables to stay healthy and fit. The result is that most of us at least remember these lessons and understand how a habit – good or bad – can be a very powerful influence. Unfortunately, many of us have fallen into a very bad online habit and it is one that we need to start changing right away. The bad habit is how little we think to protect ourselves when connecting to public Wi-Fi hotspots.

Smart phones, laptops and free Wi-Fi have changed how we work and entertain ourselves. And the reality is that once we log into a public Wi-Fi hotspot, we soon forget about the type of data we are transmitting and instead focus on creating, interacting and communicating. The ease by which modern operating systems allow us to connect has helped us to forget a simple fact; a public Wi-Fi hotspot is designed to be very easy to use. By you, the service provider – or a hacker.

Understanding the Problem: hacking Wi-Fi is child’s play

YouTube™ videos are wonderful. You can learn how to do practically anything. But did you know that you can also find videos on how to capture someone’s password via a public Wi-Fi connection? Being a Wi-Fi hacker is not as hard as it sounds. And according to online security experts at Kaspersky Labs, in 2016 over a quarter of Wi-Fi hotspots around the world were unsecured. This means that an attacker’s level of Wi-Fi hacking skills does not need to be very high to be effective. Wi-Fi hacking generally takes one of two forms: either the hacker positions herself to capture data sent from you directly to the public Wi-Fi router, or the hacker creates a second Wi-Fi address that has a similar name to the network you are trying to connect to. In either case, once the hacker has access to your data they can copy and analyze your data stream at their leisure to identify passwords, bank account numbers or photos. To better understand the scale of this problem, in another 2016 survey analysts found that 71% of respondents used public Wi-Fi to access the internet. Of those, 15% used it to do banking and online shopping.

Good Habits: the first step towards better Wi-Fi security

The good news is that changing your public Wi-Fi habits can go a long way towards protecting yourself or your employer’s valuable data. So how does someone begin to build good Wi-Fi habits? It all starts with the understanding that when it comes to public Wi-Fi security, the question of getting hacked is not an “if” but a “when”. Understanding and accepting the probability that a hacker will be looking at your data today helps you to modify your behavior. Once we have accepted this concept, we can then use one of the below strategies or tools to help keep ourselves safe:

  • Use public Wi-Fi to browse the web but not to shop or perform banking activities. Keep these tasks for when you have a secure connection and remember that even accessing your social media accounts can give hackers valuable user ID and password information. If you are addicted to social media, it might be a good idea to purchase an unlimited data plan from your mobile provider as it will help you avoid public Wi-Fi worries.
  • When accessing a public Wi-Fi network, look carefully at what connection choices are available to you. Is the company name spelled slightly differently? Ask the staff if a password is needed to access the Wi-Fi (always a good sign). Remember that hackers prey on people looking for ease and convenience.
  • A VPN, or virtual private network, is an application that allows users to encrypt their data as it is being sent over the internet. Most hackers are looking for easy targets and will not spend time trying to decrypt data. If you travel a lot for business, ask your company’s technical department if a VPN is available for use. For people less technically inclined, there are several online videos that explain how to setup and use a VPN application.
  • Turn off file sharing. Most operating systems allow you to automatically turn off file sharing when connecting to a new network.
  • Avoid downloading software or application updates. Very sophisticated hackers can create automatic update alerts, which ask you to update a specific software on your device. Malware is then included in the download and can be used to capture data later. Wait until you have access to your home or work network to update any programs or apps.
  • To save money and avoid roaming charges, most of us set our devices to automatically connect to a local Wi-Fi network. Turn off this feature as it may provide technical details about how your device connects to different websites or applications. The same goes for Bluetooth connectivity.
  • Most email and some web sites offer “two factor” authentication and it is a good idea to take the time to set this up. Two factor authentication means that access to a website can only be granted once the user provides an ID, password and some additional piece of information that they have on their person. Typically, this takes the form of a code sent via SMS to a person’s mobile phone.
  • Finally, look for the HTTPS address attribute when accessing websites. The “S” in HTTPS stands for an encrypted connection between you and the website. Websites that require a user name and password usually offer HTTPS security and this can generally be found in the website settings or in your browser’s settings.
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