Most people think public Wi-Fi is safe. Seriously?

Most people think public Wi-Fi is safe. Seriously?

Most people who use public Wi-Fi couldn’t care less about security, according to the recent 2014 Communications Market Report from Ofcom – the UK’s Office of Communications/regulatory authority for telecommunications.

Researchers reported that more than three-quarters (77%) of people, when asked if they agreed with this statement:

I am concerned about security when accessing Wi-Fi outside the home

… said, “Nope!”

While 75% are blissfully out of agreement with this one:

There are certain things that I wouldn’t access/do on the internet when connected to public WiFi

… which means that most people aren’t afraid to do some or all of these things while on Wi-Fi away from home:

  • Streaming/downloading films, TV programmes, video clips, music, etc.
  • Playing games online
  • Downloading apps
  • Shopping online
  • Online banking
  • Contacting people via apps including Skype, WhatsApp, or Viber
  • Social networking
  • Emailing

In addition, most (72%) of those who access public Wi-Fi disagreed with this statement:

Public Wi-Fi is less secure than my internet connection at home

…which isn’t actually all that surprising, given that 67% don’t even bother to password-protect their home Wi-Fi.

It’s a grievous error to trust Wi-Fi to the degree that these numbers reflect.

The research shows that most people still don’t understand the potential dangers of public and/or free Wi-Fi, despite doom and gloom headlines about the dangers, which include these:

  • A US trio who attacked companies by wardriving – i.e., driving around, scanning for poorly protected wireless networks. Between that and breaking in to install keyloggers, they bilked companies of a total of $3 million (£1.8 million).
  • An unsecured Wi-Fi home connection that led to a heavily-armed police SWAT team raiding the wrong home, including breaking down the door of a house, smashing windows and tossing a flashbang stun grenade into a living room.
  • Facebook accounts of five US politicians being hijacked after they accessed a free, open, wireless Wi-Fi network.

And those are just a tiny selection of the cherries on that bountiful Wi-Fi tree.

Of course, there is also the problem of protecting privacy on public Wi-Fi.

In just the past year, we learned that businesses are using Wi-Fi to build shopper profiles on us, and in-flight WiFi providers have been helping feds spy on us.

Surprisingly enough, given how many times we copy and paste the same “public Wi-Fi is dangerous for your privacy” advice, the ink toner cartridge in the internet doesn’t appear to be running low.

So let’s do it again!

Here are some privacy tips for blocking snoopers when you connect to public Wi-Fi:

  • Get out of the habit of remembering Wi-Fi networks. If your computer automatically joins networks based only on their names, you may end up connected to imposter networks you didn’t realise were there.
  • Turn off Wi-Fi and Bluetooth when you’re not using them. You can also use “flight mode” (although you won’t be able to receive calls in flight mode).
  • Consider using a Virtual Private Network (VPN) when you are on the road. This ‘tunnels’ all your traffic back to your home network, strongly encrypted, from wherever you are. It’s slightly less convenient but much safer, because it makes it harder for a rogue Wi-Fi access point to work out what you are up to.
  • Download the free Sophos UTM Home Edition. It comes with a VPN for both iOS and Android.
  • Your apps such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram use geo-tagging. Turn geo-tagging off if you don’t want to give away your location.

If you already care about security, good for you.

Now, it’s time to convince the rest of us that this stuff matters!

And why not use this as an opportunity to revisit your Wi-Fi network security at home (or at your friend-or-family’s place).

Watch our video, “Busting Wireless Security Myths“.

(Enjoy this video? You can check out more on the SophosLabs YouTube channel and subscribe if you like).

Image of couple using laptop courtesy of Shutterstock.