Q: When a hotel offers free WiFi, surely its network must be safe?
Free WiFi, even the free WiFi at your hotel, comes with numerous security risks and privacy erosions, ranging from man-in-the-middle attacks to identity spoofing and tracking by ISPs and other entities, just to name a few.
Being completely safe on free WiFi is never a sure bet, especially in crowded venues like airports and hotels, but you can be vigilant. Turn off the sharing feature on your laptop, smartphone, or tablet, which we often turn on at home to give other laptops and smartphones in our network, usually those of family or friends, access to our printer, music library, or other files. When you are on public WiFi, leaving this sharing function enabled allows anyone to access your files.
Q: What’s a fake hotspot? How can you prevent your mobile device from accessing one?
Most people think hackers can only steal your cyber-information by “breaking in,” but they can also “lure” you in by using a Rogue Access Point, which mimics a free WiFi hotspot. There are a few things you can do to avoid falling prey to this kind of cyber-attack, like verifying that the free WiFi hotspot to which you are connecting includes terms and conditions; most free WiFi at airports will include clear terms of service. Here too, most users set their smartphones and tablets to connect automatically to available WiFi hotspots, meaning your device might unwittingly connect to a fake hotspot. Fortunately, you can disable the auto-connect function on most smartphones in the WiFi settings.
Q: How do I stay safe if I urgently need to use the Internet on the road and only free WiFi available?
Sometimes, you just need to connect, and free WiFi is the only available connection. In these moments, it’s important to safeguard your connection as best as possible. You can do this by making sure the URLs of the sites to which you are connecting start with "HTTPS" (HyperText Transfer Protocol Secure), which keeps your information safe from hackers when you are browsing. However, the best thing you can do on an untrusted connection is use a VPN (Virtual Private Network), which allows you to route all of your online activity through a secure, private network. It’s essentially a tunnel; a VPN gives you the security of a private connection even if you’re on free WiFi.
Gary Griffiths is CEO of iPass, a leading U.S.-based provider of global mobile connectivity, powered by the world’s largest WiFi network. iPass boasts a network of 50 million hotspots and has global partnerships with HP, Microsoft, and Panasonic.