Using public hotspot Wireless (WiFi) - hotels, cafés etc.
WiFi hotspots aren't just public - they are open - and that means YOU TOO!
When Windows warns you that you are connecting to an un-secured
- i.e. insecure! network
you must remember that WiFi is a 2-way medium! and that you are
joining a network that Windows will treat differently to the Internet!
Because the network you join is 'Local' (LAN = 'Local Area Network')
then Windows will assume that it is
in some way managed and protected AND THAT OTHER USERS OF IT ARE 'FRIENDLY'!.
Needless to say that is not always the case AND there are other dangers
- please read on if you EVER use or have used a public hotspot.
What makes hotspots even more of a danger than home WiFi with WEP security or less
Because hotspots attract people with Laptops, often very mobile workers
who may well have commercial and sensitive information on their laptops
they are a honey-trap that criminals love to frequent.
If they are serious criminals they will also probably not even be that close
to the hotspot because a directional aerial can be disguised in luggage and
operated from more than a hundred metres away.
The basic problem is that securing the network would make it impractical
to administer and because the network security code would have to be given
to every potential user the level of security achieved would be trivial anyway.
In short - you can assume every piece of information that flows between
your PC and the Internet can be captured and analysed if it isn't secured
using a secure connection in a browser - the 'padlock'.
You MAY still be thinking that this is OK until you realise that:
- Unless you have made significant changes to your e-mail client
(e.g. Outlook) then your PASSWORD and USERNAME will be exposed as soon as
you send or receive mail!
They will also get the content of your mail but that isn't actually anywhere
near as useful as your login details because the latter means that they can
read all of your mail before you do each day AND they can DELETE E-MAILS
such as the one that they receive to reset your on-line
banking password - after they have used it of course!
- Although you may not try to use online banking you MAY use web sites that
also require usernames and passwords - are you SURE that someone could not
extrapolate from the trivial sites to the ones that are financially critical?
See How to manage passwords as a guide to reducing that exposure!
As well as the dangers within the traffic flowing from your PC to the Web
there are lots of other dangers to your actual PC - ESPECIALLY if you also
USE it on a HOME OR OFFICE network because your Firewall MAY be set to allow
other LAN users to view your documents!, especially those in
what is known as the 'Shared Documents' folder of your PC.
The final danger MAY cost you the least (option #1 below) - 'Fake' hotspots
can easily be set-up which promise Internet Access as if they were reputable.
Usually they mimic a well-known 'chain' even if there isn't one of their
premises nearby! There are many ways in which you can then be scammed:
- The simplest scam is to take your credit card number (and PIN/CSC from the
back!) for payment to access the Internet and then not provide any service.
If the chain they are mimicking doesn't use credit cards then the thief will
have to accept the username and passphrase that you provide!
- A much more perverse and insidious approach is to provide the Internet
Access and not only capture all of the traffic to and from the Web from your
PC but they now have the opportunity to interject or substitute web pages and
other services that your PC is expecting to be legitimate.
So if you got an error asking you to (re-)login to your online banking you
would need to be extremely careful to ensure that the site that had created
that request was 100% legitimate and certainly not proceed unless it was
a secure session - i.e. a padlock shown by the browser
and ideally some other way of authenticating the site - if you are a user
of Internet Explorer for instance you could and perhaps should place any
web site that you NEED to be able to trust in the LAN or even Trusted
Zone by clicking on the Zone symbol at the bottom right of the browser
window and following the guidance here: How to trust a web site.
There are many other serious issues but it would distract from this page
to go into the detail of: FTP usage, Browsing history, Changing Shared
There is however another exposure of a sufficiently similar nature that
you might also want to read: Dangers of the Internet Cafe which is much shorter than
the above because the risks are even greater and more obvious.
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Links and other information last validated on 6th June 2008.
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