It’s a nice little perk that comes of eating at certain restaurants, shopping at certain malls and even staying in the right hotels. Free internet for the public over WiFi is being offered in many places today, as a way to encourage you to use that facility, or to try and get you to stay a little longer. However there are risks to using free WiFi, and those should be considered before you decide to use it for anything sensitive.
The temptation is huge. You may have a 3G connection already on your smartphone, but 3G can be incredibly slow and sluggish. Free WiFi is generally far faster than a 3G connection, though it isn’t always wonderfully reliable and may drop out from time to time. Still, compared to tethering your laptop to your cell phone and waiting five minutes for a single web page to load, free WiFi can seem like a dream, allowing you to instantly check your email or your bank balance.
There are two major problems with using free WiFi. The first is that it is unsecured. When connected in this way, it is possible for others to access the files on your computer, and perhaps steal files or whatever other information they desire.
The second big risk is that the free WiFi connection that you are about to connect to may not really be who or what it says it is. It is now incredibly easy to use a laptop with a small piece of software installed, along with a wireless dongle to create your own network. You could even use the free WiFi as the backbone of your network, and simply broadcast a new name.
Some systems (Windows XP is especially prone to this) will be set to automatically connect to known networks. This means that if you have previously connected to the default ‘Netgear’ network, and a hacker has set up a fake network of this name then you may be connected without knowing it. They can then sit there on their own laptop, simply harvesting all of the passwords and other sensitive information that is being passed through their computer to the free WiFi network. You will be connected, and be none the wiser till your account is hacked.
If you really must connect via a free WiFi connection, there are some things that you can do to increase your security. Turning off all shared folders will mean that if someone tries to access your machine directly, they will not see anything. Being cautious as to what information to allow to travel on a free network is equally important, because even accessing your email account may allow a stranger to learn enough about you to dig deeper into other areas of your life. Using a VPN may also help, and there may be other tools that you can find that suit you.
No matter how strong the temptation, give some thought to what information you are about to make public the next time that you use a free WiFi connection. Passwords, banking details and far more could be available to anyone who wants them, and are perhaps best saved until you get back home.