by Karen Mesoznik
Public Wi-Fi. It's one of the greatest conveniences you can have right? It's free, saves you data, and allows you to easily keep in touch with friends, family and co-workers — even when you're traveling abroad.
Well, not so fast. As the saying goes, nothing in life comes free. And when it comes to public Wi-Fi, these words of wisdom can certainly ring true.
Seemingly harmless, open access, public Wi-Fi can pose some serious risks. What many people don't realize is that these Wi-Fi networks are not like the private networks you browse with at home. Public Wi-Fi hotspots at airports, hotels, restaurants and cafes are unsecured, meaning they're fair game for hackers and snoopers.
This may explain why a recent study by Kaspersky revealed that 1 in 5 people, and 3 in 10 senior business managers have been hit by cybercrime while abroad.
What exactly does unsecured mean? Well, when you browse over public Wi-Fi, cyber thieves can see exactly what you do on unencrypted sites (sites without https at the beginning of the URL address) as well as which encrypted sites you visit. Hackers can also take advantage of the lack of security to install malicious software on your computer, which they can use to capture confidential information like usernames, passwords, credit card numbers and email exchanges.
Cyber thieves have a variety of sophisticated means to steal your data, one of which includes setting up completely fake Wi-Fi hotspots to lure unsuspecting subjects.
This was a common threat at this year's Rio Olympics where hackers played their own sports of sorts and went for visiting spectators' online gold. When Kasperksy Lab analyzed over 4,500 wireless access points near the games, they found that a quarter of them were "vulnerable or insecure."
Security firm, Avast, shined a bright light on this same issue at the Republican National Convention. They set up fake Wi-Fi hotspots using common network names like "Xfinitywifi," "Attwifi," “Google Starbucks," and conference-related names like “I vote Trump! free Internet" and "I vote Hillary! free Internet." Over the course of a day, more than 1,200 users connected to the fake hotspots and nearly 70% of users‘ identities were exposed.
But you don't have to be attending a special event to find yourself as potential Wi-Fi hacker prey. Have you ever stayed at an Airbnb? If so, you too could be at risk. When security researcher Jeremy Galloway, spoke at the Black Hat cybersecurity conference, he revealed that Airbnb networks can be even less secure than coffee shop or hotel networks.
Why? One word: Routers. Routers can easily be reset by hackers who can then gain full control of the device, route traffic through their own computers and pounce the minute they see valuable data.
The best means of protection against unsecured Wi-Fi hotspots, are VPNs (Virtual Private Networks). A VPN, Virtual Private Network, allows you to connect to a private, remote network and direct your traffic through a secure, encrypted tunnel, making it undecipherable to hackers.
But does this guarantee complete security? Perhaps not.
The catch is, VPNs in the market require consumers to actively connect for Wi-Fi protection, yet, as Norton's 2016 Wi-Fi Risk report revealed, only 1 in 3 consumers can tell the difference between a secure and unsecure public Wi-Fi network. Meanwhile, the number of unsecured Wi-Fi hotspots continues to grow. In fact, Public Wi-Fi hotspots are expected to grow to 7 times the 2015 figure, from 64 million to 432 million by 2020.
"With the number of hotspots growing exponentially, public Wi-Fi security is an increasing concern for all of us," says Sagi Gidali Co-Founder and CPO of SaferVPN. SaferVPN, together with Movements, are the creators of #UnblockTheWeb, an initiative that provides activists and dissidents living in closed societies with uncensored and anonymous Internet access.
Recognizing the lack of Internet security for the everyday netizen, SaferVPN is the first in the industry to introduce, automatic Wi-Fi security, a new feature that will make security over public Wi-Fi accessible as well. "Understandably, for many people, the urge to connect to the Internet often overrides their concern for online safety — but it can certainly come at a high price," says Amit Bareket, SaferVPN Co-Founder and CEO. "So we felt it was very important that we develop a feature that would provide individuals with absolute and immediate data protection, without them having to lift a finger or think twice."
This development is especially important for activists, who face severe, even life-threatening consequences if their online activities, personal messages, social media posts or confidential browsing data is exposed. And sometimes, hotspots that are rigged can even leave dissidents vulnerable to government spyware.
With SaferVPN's new feature, the minute a person's phone, whether it be iOS or Android, connects to unsecured Wi-Fi, an encrypted VPN channel is activated automatically. To provide full transparency, the app also and sends individuals a notification, so that they're aware that they've connected to an unsecured network and their data is being protected.
"Like #UnblockTheWeb, this is another step in our efforts to make cybersecurity ubiquitous and accessible," says Gidali. "Secure Internet access is more important than ever and something that should be readily available to everyone."
The author, Karen Mesoznik is the Inbound Marketing Manager at SaferVPN. SaferVPN is a VPN provider that has partnered with movements.org to launch #UnblockTheWeb, a movement that aims to provide dissidents in closed societies around the world with anonymous, unrestricted access to the web. Read more and get involved with the cause at Unblock The Web.
Crowdsourcing the struggle for human rights. Be part of the solution at Movements.org. The views expressed are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of Movements.