How to Stay Safe in a Public Unprotected WiFi Hotspot
You sit down at a coffee house. You notice the sign on the wall saying "Free WiFi here". Wow! You get out your brand new shiny iPad and connect it up to the network. It was easy… The SSID was 'CoffeeFreeWiFi" and no password was needed. Why aren't more people using this? There is only you and some guy with a laptop on the other side of the room. He seems pleased with himself! Laughing away into his latte and sniggering at his screen!
You sit and drink your cappuccino and talk to your pals on Facebook… "Guess where I am right now! Outside Joes Coffee house drinking coffee and I am using my iPad surf the web! How cool is that". You then decide to check your email. It's on a POP3 server. Great, my father sent me some money by Wire Here is the reference number. All I need to do is go and give them this number and get the Â£500 I need for books for my course. This all seems so cool. What could possibly be wrong with this?
A day or two later, your Facebook friends complain about getting abusive messages from you! Also they are getting spam messages… Messages with links to websites that promise financial gain One of your friends who is a Computer Whizz tells you that one of the links tried to upload a virus to his PC! Luckily it was stopped. You are pretty disturbed by this and decide to take a walk to clear your head. "I know, let's go and collect that Â£500 from Dad and go book shopping". You go to the Money Shop to claim it but they tell you t was already claimed two days ago from a branch near Joe's Coffee House! You get that sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach! Now you will have to sell your iPad to pay for your books or get thrown off the course when your grades suffer!
The day goes from bad to worse when you try to Email Dad to see if he will send you more money. You can't log into your Email! It says your password is wrong! It's always been the same! "Mojo" – The name of your dog when you were a kid! It suddenly sinks in! Maybe logging onto that Open WiFi network at Joe's wasn't such a good idea!
So what went wrong here and what could he have done to prevent this? His first mistake was using a public unencrypted WiFi hotspot. In connecting to this network, all his traffic could be 'sniffed' by anyone in the vicinity. Tthat can be a few hundred feet. However, with some clever use of ordinary household items, a person can construct an antennae that can pick up the signal at twice that distance. So the guy laughing into his coffee might not have been the culprit. Anybody with the correct software – such as WireShark – can easily eavesdrop on every packet of information sent from the Guy's iPad! Even if the network was encrypted, you would still not be safe. If someone was connected to the same network legitimately, they could still listen in on your traffic.
There is one simple way of making sure that you are safe on a Public WiFi Network. That is by using a Virtual Private Network (VPN). There are a number of providers of these services available. Just go to your favourite search engine and search for them. Most – if not all – Operating Systems are able to establish a VPN connection. You can even do it from your iPhone, Android Device or iPad. What VPN achieves is your own private 'tunnel' into the web. You direct all your traffic to their server, they go get the data you require and send it to you in an encrypted form. It doesn't matter that you are on a public Wifi Network and whether it is protected by WiFi encryption. You have another level of encryption that is just between you and the VPN provider. It is well worth investing in a provider and using it when in public. Be it a hotel, coffee shop, University or anywhere else where you are connected to a hotspot where you do not control the router – as you do at home.
So there it is. My No. 1 tip for staying safe in a public Wifi HotSpot. Invest in VPN provider. Set up your phone, iPad, Andriod Device or Laptop to connect to the internet using VPN once your are connected to the Public WiFi Hotspot. You can get a subscription for a few Â£'s a month. But here is the key! Remember to switch it on when you are connected to a public WiFi hotspot!
So what happened to our victim? Well his traffic was unencrypted. He uses a POP3 server to pick up his email. His password was therefore transmitted unencrypted. The interceptor grabbed his Email account details using some software such as WireShark then logged onto his account, read all his emails and changed his password. He then sold the account details onto some criminals so that they could use his account to send spam emails. He then went to the money shop and took out the Â£500 from his Dad!
Our victim logged onto Facebook using an unencrypted channel with 'http://' at the front of the address. Had he used 'https://', he would have had more protection and used SSL – but hackers have even found a way around that using something called a 'Man In The Middle' attack. More of that in future articles. His Facebook account was then compromised. The interceptor logged into Facebook as our victim. Changed his password and sent spam messages to all his friends. Some of which contained links to Phishing sites (more about that in the future as well).
There are a lot of unscrupulous people out there who know how to use the Internet for their own dishonest means. It is up to you as an individual to take the necessary precautions to stay safe. It's a faceless World where people can disappear in a blink of an eye. The criminal might not even be in the same geographic location as you. Stay safe… Use a VPN… It's the best defence we have at present – till someone works out how to get around it!
Norm Fasey is a Freelance Computer Security and Data Recovery Specialist with over 20 years in IT. He is a certified CISSP and CEH and runs a small Computer Security and Data Recovery company in London. Please visit [http://www.axiom-it-security.co.uk] for more details.
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