Most people are thrilled when they encounter free Wi-Fi in various spots: the library, a local coffee shop, or the airport. As Internet access becomes an everyday necessity, cities across the country, from San Francisco to Philadelphia, are providing or proposing citywide Wi-Fi for their residents. However, though citywide Wi-Fi may sound like a great idea, a large-scale public network poses legitimate security risks.
Wi-Fi Security Woes
In theory, offering citywide Wi-Fi is a great way for municipalities to help their residents step into the digital age. But in reality, setting up a public network requires a great deal of resources that cities may not have — and most worrisome is the fact that securing the network isn’t entirely feasible.
Unfortunately, it is virtually impossible to secure citywide Wi-Fi. Because access is unrestricted (allowing everyone to log on) and the network is so large, the safeguards used to secure individual networks, such as password protection, can’t be remotely deployed. The network must remain open, increasing security risks. And though individuals can install software to protect their computers, which Wi-Fi connected cities like Houston encourage users to do, the city can’t enforce it.
Thus, the network is unsecured and vulnerable. While most residents will use it properly, malicious hackers can attempt to compromise the network for different reasons: to steal private information for ID theft, to deploy viruses to infect other computers on the network, or to download illegal material. They can do this by accessing the actual public network or setting up unauthorized access points. For example, hackers can easily carry a wireless router in their backpack and lure unsuspecting users in a public place to unwittingly connect to their network. Once connected, the hacker can see all outgoing and incoming data to and from a user’s laptop.
These issues are so concerning that although citywide Wi-Fi has been promoted as a way to streamline bureaucratic operations, some have noted that government agencies would not use public Wi-Fi due to security risks.
Considering these potential problems, many cities and residents are hesitant to hop on the citywide Wi-Fi bandwagon. Still, others insist the networks are a step in the right direction, as long as users know how to protect themselves.
How to Protect Yourself When Using Public Wi-Fi
On a public network, security is really in the hands of the user. Whether or not your city plans to implement citywide Wi-Fi, you’re still likely to encounter Wi-Fi hotspots on your next trip or at your favorite coffee shop. Follow these tips to protect yourself while connected to a public network.
Keep your computer protected: Ideally, you should have a full security suite, but at a minimum, you should have a 2-way firewall and antivirus software. There are many free options from reputable companies, such as ZoneAlarm Free Firewall (www.zonealarm.com/freefirewall). Also, remember to always update your operating system to make sure you have the latest security patches in place.
Only connect to legitimate Wi-Fi networks: Before you connect to a network, verify that the Wi-Fi network name (SSID) you are connecting to is from a legitimate service. Do not connect to random Wi-Fi networks.
Specify public: When you connect to a network in Windows, it will ask if it’s work, home, or public. Always select public (versus trusted), which will switch your settings to the most secure (blocking things like file and printer sharing).
Don’t bank or buy: Avoid typing in any sensitive passwords or credit card numbers for online purchases while on an unsecured network. If you must access any of your accounts, email included, only do so on a secured page with a web address starting with “https://”. (And don’t opt to save/store any username or password info you’ve entered.)
Use a VPN: A Virtual Private Network allows you to route all your activity through a separate, secure, private network, even if you’re on a public one. Several services are available, or you can even go with an app like Hotspot Shield, which sets a VPN up for you automatically.
Log off: When you’re done using the Wi-Fi, make sure to log off. This decreases your chances of anyone using the network to access your computer while you’re enjoying a latte or answering a call.