The explosion in Public Access Wi-Fi hotspots over the last fifteen years has made it easy for those with Laptops, smartphones, and PDA’s to stay permanently connected to the internet with relative ease and at minimal cost compared to using a mobile cellular data plan.
However, many people are using these hotspots for transactions and communications blissfully unaware that everything they do can almost certainly be ‘listened’ in to by anyone with just some very basic knowledge of the workings of the internet and its protocols.
Unless the hotspot asks for a password when you first connect, it is what is known as an ‘Open’ hotspot, and anyone else connected to the hotspot will be able eavesdrop on the traffic of any other connected user.
A simple Google search for ‘Packet sniffers’ will pull up a long list of packages for just about any available operating system – One of the most common and well respected sniffers on the market is the well known ‘Wireshark’ package.
However, there are a few simple precautions and protections that just about any user can implement that will make using Public Access Wi-Fi as secure as it can be. Please note that due to the myriad of available computers and operating systems, the techniques below are just general guidelines, for detailed instructions we suggest Googling your specific hardware / combination for full implementation instructions.
- Firewall – Most modern operating systems have a software firewall built in that will help to repel any attacks on your system from others connected to the same Wi-Fi hotspot. Make sure that yours is switched on and working. If you don’t have one included with your O.S. a Google search should turn up a good third party one for you.
- File Sharing – Your O.S. will almost certainly allow simple file sharing over the network, so any other users on the hotspot will be able to see the contents of any folders that are set up for file sharing. Before connecting to any Public Access Wi-Fi Hotspot make your you have turned off File Sharing on your device.
- Turn Off Wi-Fi – Of course, there are going to be times when you are in range of a Public Access Wi-Fi Hotspot, but you don’t need Internet access, the safest thing to do here is simply turn your Wi-Fi radio off. Many laptops have a physical switch to turn Wi-Fi on and off, failing that there is usually a function key combination that will do the same thing.
- VPN – One of the most secure methods of using a Wi-Fi hotspot is to use a VPN, this is a software package that once installed and configured on your device will create an ‘encrypted tunnel’ between your device and the public internet. This makes packet sniffing by anyone else connected to the network impossible.
- Turn On SSL – SSL is an acronym for ‘Secure Sockets Layer’ this is an internet protocol that uses encryption to secure connections between a computer and web site. Most people are aware that they should look for ‘https’ at the start of web sites where security is a concern such as banking sites, (the addition of the ‘s’ to the normal ‘http’ indicates an SSL connection) but many people are unaware that many other sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Google also offer SSL as an option to aid privacy. If you want to check if a websites accepts SSL connections, simply insert the additional ‘s’ into the website address, alternatively the ‘HTTPS Everywhere’ extension is available for most popular browsers, and automatically enforces SSL when it can.
Hacking and eavesdropping techniques are evolving all the time, but anyone adopting the above suggestions should be safe from all but the most determined, and technologically savvy attackers.
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