3hotspotMobile surfing has become cheaper, since data roaming prices have fallen. However, if you want to use your smartphone, tablet computer or notebook on vacation, and want to download or send large amounts of data, or make use of video telephony, you can do that at low cost via public Wi-Fi hotspots. Such wireless internet connections are available at many busy places like airports, hotels or cafes and are often free-of-charge.

Hotspots are important for a nationwide broadband coverage, but the security of these networks is often problematic. In a public WLAN environment, criminals and other unauthorized persons, can easily access other computers or upload data. For pragmatic reasons, many hotspot operators offer unencrypted connections - which are particularly unsafe. But even encrypted networks do not necessarily offer protection against unauthorized access. Targeted and direct attacks on a radio interface of a mobile device are possible.

Due to the fact that the range of wireless connections via hotspots is limited, users must remain in the immediate vicinity. And the use of special software, so-called network sniffer, makes it easy for attackers to read personal data of others - no matter if the hotspot is for free or liable to charges.

Here are some safety tips to defend your system when using public Wi-Fi networks:

  • Select hotspot manually: The registration and access of the hotspot must be authentic, therefore, users should only connect to hotspots that they consider trustworthy. An automatic connection by the operating system is not recommended and surfers should instead always select the hotspot manually.
  • Check the network settings: Before using public Internet access, surfers should turn off all wireless connections that are not needed (e.g. Bluetooth) and set the profile for the established connection to the hotspot as "public network”. Furthermore, make sure the Wi-Fi or the automatic sharing options are switched off when you are not using them, to avoid the risk that your mobile device wil try to connect to an unsecure network without you even realizing it.
  • Keep the connect time as short as possible: To give hackers less chances of an attack, you should reduce the time spent online via public hotspots to a minimum. Before dialing, make sure you have the full information of prices and terms and conditions, to be able to consider potential costs.
  • Use latest web browser: While surfing the Web, modern browsers check whether the certificates for secure connections are still valid. Therefore, the latest version of a web browser should be used and software enhancements, so-called add-ons, should always be brought up to date, too.
  • Protect against viruses and malware: The same rules when surfing over the network at home apply to the use of wireless Internet on the go: virus scanners, firewalls, and other security measures must be enabled and up to date at all times. In addition, surfers should restrict the user rights, as it complicates the installation of malicious programs by third parties.
  • Use encrypted connections, if possible: For transmission of sensitive data use only encrypted connection protocols such as "https" for surfing or "SSL" for e-mails. So-called virtual private networks ("VPN") are a good way to encrypt data securely during transmission over the Internet. They are used primarily for connection to a corporate network, but home users can benefit from this technique, too. In addition, many providers offer so-called VPN tunnel in good quality and at reasonable prices.
  • Beware of data sniffing: Keep in mind that others around you connect to the same network, and one of them might happen to have the proper tool to scan your device for vulnerable software and use it to plant backdoors or access login credentials if, for instance, they are sent unencrypted. Fact is that even an ordinary hacker can set up a network, give it a generic name such as “free Wi-Fi” or “Secure public Wi-Fi,” and monitor the traffic of all users that connect to this specific network or read all data sent around in that network. Therefore, when browsing public hotspots, user names and passwords should be entered absolutely hidden. Highly sensitive data, such as online banking, should generally never be transmitted. If you still transfer money via hotspot, you must pay high attention to the encryption of the connection. There should be "https://" in the address bar of the browser instead of "http://" in front of the URL. In addition, a lock icon will be visible. Accessing online banking and online payment websites or making e-shopping transactions through public Wi-Fi hotspots might be convenient, but cybercriminals can still use a fake SSL certificate to circumvent a secure connection, have the user approve it and use it to sniff login data and such.
  • Password–protect and encrypt your device. In case someone steals or finds your device, make it harder to access information stored there. Also encrypt your data with dedicated software, or – if your device supports it – with the default encryption option. Use anti-theft programs to help track your device and lock or wipe your data from afar.
  • Think of followers: Users should also not forget that criminals can quite conveniently look over their shoulder when sitting in a café. Special plastic sheets for notebook screens make it more difficult to read along. If the person sitting next to you comes too close, or the video surveillance system swivels on your own computer, you should better change the venue or postpone your surfing session.

By Daniela La Marca