A few years ago, this would have been a really bad idea. However, these days, fake WiFi nodes are not as prevalent as they once were and with https, it is generally safe to use public WiFi for low-security work.
However, there are some things to think about if you decide to work over public WiFi. It is often better to stay in offline mode and work on local files only.
The Risks of Airport WiFi
The largest risk of using public WiFi is a man-in-the-middle attack. This means that the hacker’s computer is acting as a relay. Your data passes through it and is copied. There are two primary ways hackers achieve this:
- Fake nodes. Hackers will set up their own Wi-Fi router with an innocuous name such as Free Wi-Fi or, if more sophisticated, using the name of the airport. When people connect to that node, their data is easily harvested.
- Public Wi-Fi tends to be unencrypted. Sometimes it has a connection manager, but a lot of the time airport wi-fi is completely open, meaning that anyone can intercept the data between your computer and the router. Sniffers connect to the network and steal unencrypted data. This includes any usernames and passwords you enter while connected on the network.
Airports tend to be particular targets because travelers are tired, distracted and jet lagged. Airports also often cannot afford decent security, especially given how large and high-traffic the network has to be. Some airports do a better job than others, obviously, but fully securing airport Wi-Fi is close to impossible. Hotel Wi-Fi is also often insecure, but airports tend to be much worse.
Protecting Yourself While Connected to Airport Wifi
There are some things you can do to make using airport WiFi safer, although waiting until you get home to do high-security transactions is often still a good idea. Consider using public WiFi only for light web surfing, games, and other things not connected to your personal information.
However, with proper precautions, it can be a lot safer than if you simply casually connect to the open network.
Here are some tips:
If the airport network demands your email address in order to use it, then make sure you use a throwaway email address. This is a good sign you have the right network, but the email address you use will likely be spammed by the airport, sold to third parties, or stolen by hackers who see a treasure trove of valid email addresses. It’s a very good idea to make a gmail address that you use for signing up for things like this, which you don’t have to check regularly. This corrals the spam. Use an address that is not your name or connected to any personal information.
Do not let your phone automatically connect to open public networks. Sure, it can save data, but you may not even notice that it has hooked up to something shady.
Make sure you know you are connecting to the right network. If in doubt, ask at the information desk. Some airports also post signs saying what the network is. If so, make sure the network you use is exactly what it says on the sign, as hackers may set one up that is one character off in the hope of catching tired travelers. Make sure that the capitalization is the same. Don’t connect to anything called “Free WiFi” or similar, without any further identifying information. If the network does not have a login page at all, it is more likely to be fake.
Make sure that you are connecting to all websites using https. Consider using Https Anywhere to ensure this. If the connection manager does not start with https, then don’t connect or connect only for low-security stuff.
Don’t connect to sites you don’t want anyone to know you connect to…even with encryption and https it’s easy for a hacker to see the domain you’re visiting. PornHub, we’re looking at you.
Do research on the airport. Some airports have better security than others. Midway and Dulles are known for having good security. As of July 2018 San Diego was named the least secure airport in the United States for internet users, tying with Newark.
If you have a long layover, it may be worth buying admission to an airline club room. These often have their own wireless networks which are more secure. Additionally, you will have a better space in which to work.
If you travel regularly, it might be worth getting a Boingo subscription. This will cost you a bit of money, but for some people, it’s worth it.
Consider, if you have the data, setting up your phone as a hotspot instead. The cell network is, while not 100% secure, much safer than public WiFi.
Put a privacy screen on your laptop to protect you from shoulder surfers. This is a good idea any time you are working in a public place.
Disable your laptop’s file and print sharing options while traveling. If using an iPhone, disable AirDrop. If not using Bluetooth, turn that off too. All of this helps prevent your device from transmitting data you didn’t know it was transmitting.
Keep your OS and security software up to date. Always use anti-virus and anti-malware software, including an ad blocker.
Even with precautions, avoid doing financial transactions or anything else highly sensitive. Use the cell network or wait until you are at home. This does include sensitive work documents.
Get a VPN. The absolute best thing you can do to protect yourself while using airport wi-fi is to subscribe to a VPN. Make sure to pick one which works with all of your devices. You should join the network then immediately activate a VPN browsing session. Some employers even require that their employees use a VPN while traveling.
Airport WiFi can be the riskiest public WiFi to use, but it can also sometimes be unavoidable, especially for those who travel frequently. By being careful which network you use and taking other precautions, such as using a VPN, you can make it much safer, although it is still a good idea to avoid using it for highly sensitive actions.
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