Three hotspot security risks and how to easily avoid them

"Know your enemy", said Sun Tzu in around 500 B.C, although probably not in reference to public Wi‑Fi security. This well-known piece of wisdom does however apply perfectly to increasing your security on Wi‑Fi hotspots: the threats you face are invisible to the naked eye, and can be best avoided with awareness and knowledge of their existence.

With that in mind, here are the three most common ways public Wi‑Fi spoofing and hacking can be used maliciously to cause many kinds of security risks. Thankfully, with these few tips you can ensure you can easily shield yourself on public hotspots.

1. Man-in-the-middle attack against hotspot security

Imagine there is a tube connecting your house to a friend's house, and you send each other messages through that tube. Now imagine someone cutting a hole in it without your knowledge. What could that person in the middle do? At the very least, they could read the messages you send to your friend. This alone might be bad, but it gets worse: they could also start impersonating your friend, making you reveal personal information, the kind you only tell someone you completely trust.

This illustrates one of the main public Wi‑Fi security issues, the man-in-the-middle attack. A hacker can go into a public place with a hotspot, turn on a simple piece of hardware to become a transmitter between you and the legitimate Wi‑Fi. The security of the hotspot is compromised because they have access to all the traffic. They can listen to it, or insert a fake website that looks just like your email or online bank in order to get access to your login information.

2. The evil twin: a threat to public Wi‑Fi security

Despite sounding like a cliché soap opera story line, setting up an evil twin is a frighteningly easy method for Wi‑Fi spoofing. It's similar to MitM, but doesn't require the hacker to be in range of the hotspot they impersonate. This is because one of the biggest Wi‑Fi security issues is that your device will by default connect to any hotspot with the same name as one you have connected to before.

This means if you have ever connected to a hotspot called "Free Wi‑Fi", your device will remember the name and connect to it automatically when in range. In this case, you don't even need to fall into the hacker's trap because your device does it for you. One of the most important Wi‑Fi security tips is therefore to always turn your Wi‑Fi off when not using it.

3. Packet sniffers — a serious public Wi‑Fi security issue

Packet sniffers are tools that hackers can passively leave running to intercept unencrypted data that travels over a Wi‑Fi network they are in. It's quite simple, really. When you log onto a website, that information is extremely vulnerable until it reaches the router and exits the hotspot. There is software readily available which allows a hacker to easily capture every bit of unencrypted data that is sent over the network. Most websites still overlook this public Wi‑Fi security issue by not encrypting their traffic.

Besides, even if a website uses an encrypted https connection for logging in, it may still send unencrypted cookies. Cookies are little files that contain things like tracking information, website settings and crucially, whether a user is already logged in. This means that when intercepted, an unencrypted cookie can be used to impersonate you. Unlike the other methods, packet sniffing simply requires the hacker to be in the same network as you, leading to an obvious Wi‑Fi security risk.

Tips to increase your public Wi‑Fi security

Knowing the risks is already half the battle, as understanding the basics of Wi‑Fi hotspot security risks makes it easier to avoid them. You can be safe if you just follow a few choice public Wi‑Fi security tips, such as never leaving Wi‑Fi turned on when not using it and doing your best to make sure the hotspot you connect to is legitimate.

The important thing to remember is that data over public Wi‑Fi can easily be snooped on, while data over 3G is not as vulnerable. To encrypt your traffic and prevent public Wi‑Fi security issues, a personal VPN such as F‑Secure FREEDOME is the easiest, securest and most versatile solution. FREEDOME uses VPN technology to make your traffic very difficult to intercept, while other features such as browsing protection block malicious websites from loading at all. Protecting yourself allows you to be more connected with less risk: it's a win-win!

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