Q-and-A: How do I know if an unsecured wi-fi hotspot is safe?

The team overseeing Technology OneSource, the managed IT services program that we offer here at NetGain Technologies, communicates regularly with our clients’ “end users.” One of the ways we connect with end users—basically, any of the clients’ employees who use a computer connected to a network—is by distributing a periodic, IT security-focused newsletter that promises “five minutes of managed security education” in every issue. Last week’s topic was “the dangers of unsecured wi-fi hotspots.” (It’s 531 words of great advice for dealing with unsecured networks.)

As the technical director of security at NetGain, I had consulted with Rob Wildman, our executive vice president–Services, on the newsletter’s content. So, Rob has forwarded along the comments he’s received, and has asked me to reply to a few follow-up questions raised by the newsletter. One reader replied to the email with an inquiry that is worth sharing: What protection is available when logging into legitimate wi-fi connections, like Starbucks?

Great question!

Here’s the scenario: An unsecured wi-fi hotspot that looks legit

You order your morning coffee at your favorite coffee shop. Now just sit back, relax, … and get hacked. It happens more often than you think.

Man-in-the-middle (MITM) attacks have hit Starbucks hard twice already this year, stealing customer information and even money. Starbucks is only a well-recognized example; this sort of data theft targets unsecured wi-fi hotspots at any local establishment.

So how does a MITM attack work? The hacker can set up a fake wireless access point (AP) that emulates the shop’s public (“free”) connection, often naming the connection so that it appears valid—effectively creating an unsecured wi-fi connection that looks like it’s official.

When users unknowingly connect to the fake AP, they unwittingly traffic all their information through the hacker’s laptop, enabling data collectors (key stroke loggers) to stealing every piece of information the users are transmitting. This data includes possible login credentials and passwords to emails, banking sites, social media profiles, and even company systems.

“But wait, all my connections are secure,” I hear. “The lock identifier on my browser indicates a safe connection.”

Unsecured wi-fi
That’s partially true. The lock indicator on the website means that the interface is using HTTPS (a secure connection) to protect the identity of the user and data transmitted. The hacker can defeat the HTTPS system. The hacker can actually intercept the URL request and send back a non-protected version of the website (including the lock icon) to further confuse the victim.

What can we do about it?

First, from a company directive, you must establish policy to never use a public (open) wireless hotspot for company systems access. Assume that every public system is an unsecured wi-fi connection.

In the cases where public wi-fi is the only available access, VPN solutions should be in place to protect the connection. Through a VPN, hackers cannot intercept the connection, as all the data that parses the VPN are now encrypted, and therefore unreadable.

Practice common sense. You should assume that if you use public wi-fi access, then everything that you do CAN (and probably is) being read.

Now, where’s the sugar and cream?

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