Using public WiFi hot spots are convenient, but can be a major security issue for unsuspecting users. Hackers and criminals can use these to their advantage to gain all kinds of private information and access to business networks. Learn the pitfalls of public WiFi and how they can be avoided.
People’s need to connect to the Internet from a variety of locations has grown exponentially over the past decade. Much of this can be attributed to the increased bandwidth available to consumers and businesses. Furthermore, the proliferation of mobile devices has had a part in this as well. One avenue to the Internet that has helped fill this gap is public WiFi locations. These hotspots are found in coffee shops, libraries, restaurants and a variety of other locations. Many times these are free to use with the expectation that you will purchase the location’s goods or services. However, many do not know that these public WiFi hotspots can offer a gaping hole into your computer’s files and sensitive information. The following highlights some of the ways hackers use public hotspots to gain access to computers.
The first method is not actually using a public hotspot directly. Rather, it is leveraging the existing public hotspots available to create a false sense of security of connecting to a fake network. Hackers will use various devices like air cards, laptops and personal routers to create networks with similar names to existing networks in the area. Unsuspecting users will connect to their network thinking they have connected to a legitimate network because the network names are similar.
Once connected to the duped network, the hacker can employ various methods to read files on a laptop, capture data that is being inputted into websites, or a myriad of other unscrupulous deeds.
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One way to combat this is to simply ask the store owner the name of their wireless network. A person should be careful connecting to a network that does not require a password. Hackers and criminals that set up these networks will usually do so without the need of a password. This is because they do not want any hurdles to people connecting to their network. Therefore, if a person is able to connect to a wireless network without a password then they should take extra care to verify they are using a legitimate wireless network.
Automatic File Sharing
A second area of vulnerability is the automatic sharing of files and folders by popular operating systems like Windows and OS X. These operating systems, as a convenience, will automatically make certain folders available unless the user disables the feature. Unsuspecting users can potentially make sensitive information available to people on wireless networks by placing files and folders in these shared folders.
The obvious way to counter this issue is to disable the default sharing that occurs. If that is not an option, it is a good practice to not place sensitive information in these shared folders. Instead, make a private folder to store information that other people do not need to see. Alternatively, encryption can be used to protect the information. Encryption will allow only the user with the encryption key to view the information.
The last issue of concern regarding public WiFi is the practice of man-in-the-middle attacks. This is a sophisticated way for hackers to access data, but it is not uncommon. Hackers will use special equipment and software to capture data that is being passed across a network. For example, a hacker will use something called a sniffer to view and capture data packets travelling across the wireless network. They can use the information in the packets to ascertain passwords, credit card information and other private information.
Countering this weakness can be difficult, but the best course is to be proactive. It is best to use a virtual private network (VPN) connection if accessing work information. This will need to be set up at the work network and on the user PC to work successfully. Furthermore, it is best to not enter sensitive information into a computer when connected to a wireless network.
Related Reading: Will Your VPN Give You Away to the NSA?
It is obvious that the use of public wireless networks is not going away, and will continue to grow. It offers so many advantages to people, and has even become expected in some establishments. The downside is that it offers a great opportunity for nefarious individuals to gain all kinds of private information from unsuspecting users. I hope the information in this article will help you become more aware of this vulnerability and become more vigilant when using public WiFi.