Public Wireless Security
These days, it seems that every public place and business offers wireless internet access. These wireless ‘hotspots’ can be found at airports, hotels, cafes, bars, restaurants and even laundromats.
Whilst they are highly convenient, allowing you to ‘get connected’ wherever you may be, they also present a number of security risks. Therefore, precautions must be taken to help ensure your information stays protected.
Wireless Network Characteristics
Lack of Security is Prevalent
- It is often inconvenient for the purveyors of public wireless networks to implement any kind of security, either because they lack the knowledge to do so, or because it would cause too many compatibility or support issues.
- Always err on the side of caution and assume anyone can access the information you are viewing or sending over public wireless networks.
Anyone Can Connect
- Public wireless networks allow anyone to connect to them, making it easy for those with criminal intent to hide anonymously.
- It is simple to intercept, access and modify unprotected information being sent or received from devices connected to these networks.
- Be aware that the very nature of wireless means that the person sitting opposite in the coffee shop could be attempting to access your information.
Rogue Networks are Common
- Rogue networks appear legitimate, but they are not. They are set up by individuals hoping you will connect, allowing them to obtain unauthorized access to your information.
- When connecting to a wireless hotspot, you may be presented with a list of similar networks to choose from. Always ask and verify the correct network in these cases.
- Be suspicious of networks named ‘Free Internet’ or similar – these are common ploys to get people to connect.
Harden your Computer
- Install adequate firewall software and ensure that it is configured securely to block all unauthorised access attempts.
- Ensure you have installed a good AntiVirus application, that is running and up to date with the latest security definitions, as this will help prevent malware.
- Install the latest security updates and patches for all software, helping to ensure security vulnerabilities cannot be exploited.
Protect your Information
- Encrypt all sensitive information stored on your device, so that it is inaccessible to anyone attempting unauthorized access. This can be done via full disk encryption or file level encryption. Truecrypt (http://truecrypt.org) is a great free, open source encryption tool that can be used.
- Disable all file shares that you may have on your device, preventing the sharing of your files with everyone connected to the network.
Disable Wireless Card and Connection
- Ensure your wireless card is disabled or turned off when not in use. This will ensure your laptop does not broadcast any wireless signals or try to connect to any networks without your authority. Some newer laptops come with a wireless switch that can turn off wireless – use it.
- Set your laptop or other mobile wireless device to not ‘automatically connect to available networks’. This can be done in the wireless network properties.
Use a Non-Administrator Account
- Never connect to a wireless network with an administrative user account. This will prevent anyone from obtaining administrator rights on your PC should they gain access.
- The default user account on Windows usually has local administrator rights and should not be used. Instead, create or use a different user account that has basic user rights and log in as that user before you connect.
Assess the Need to Connect Wirelessly
- Whilst it is tempting to connect, especially in places like airports where we all get bored, ask yourself whether you actually need to connect or if you are just doing to so pass the time. If you don’t need to, avoid the risk by not connecting.
- Locations such as hotel rooms often offer both wired and wireless connection options. When faced with this choice, always go for the wired option. No need to go wireless if you don’t have to, and the wired connection is usually faster.
Avoid Sending or Receiving Sensitive Information
- Avoid sending or receiving sensitive information such as credit card, online banking or financial information over public wireless networks.
- If you must send or receive sensitive information, ensure the website is SSL encrypted by checking for the locked padlock icon and ensuring the website address (URL) begins with HTTPS (S = secure). If these are missing, do not transfer sensitive information.
- If your business has provided you with VPN (Virtual Private Network) access, then use it as soon as you connect to a public wireless network
- VPN provides a secure, encrypted tunnel, ensuring all of the information you transfer or receive wirelessly is encrypted and therefore, protected.
Don’t Leave Devices Unattended
- Never leave your laptop or wireless device unattended, no matter how inconvenient it may be to pack up and take with you.
- It is not ok to leave it while you quickly get another coffee from the barista, or visit the washroom in the business class lounge.
- Opportunist thieves are everywhere and they will take advantage.
Check out the Public Wireless Security video in the multimedia section of the site.