Staying Safe on Public WiFi

10th Oct 2014

With every town centre and his dog now either already offering or planning to implement a free WiFi service, is Free Public Wi-Fi merely a gimmick or a modern-day necessity?  

Step into my DeLorean as we travel back to 1991 and the invention of the first WiFi standard, 802.11 (and the digital answering machine – exciting times indeed). Originally intended for use within cashier systems, who would have thought that almost a quarter of a century on we would be lugging around an average of 3.3 WiFi enabled devices… EACH!?

It's Facebook's fault

In today’s mixed-up world of social media, in which we are all compelled to hyper-communicate through one platform or another - and from one minute to the next - from a consumer perspective free public Wi-Fi could well be deemed an essential lifeline; god forbid we should be without Facebook for an hour or two.

Beware the dangers of Public WiFi

When out and about it has become incredibly easy to find an open SSID (network), to accept its terms and conditions and be on the web faster than you can say ‘hacker’, checking emails and socialising with friends on the varying and plentiful social networks.

STOP! Did you take those extra few minutes to read the Ts&Cs? I’m going to guess you didn’t…nobody does, right?

In order to emphasise our apathy regarding web-safety a Finnish computer security company, F-Secure, recently duped unsuspecting Londoners into a “Herod clause”. The terms of their WiFi experiment allowed users to log-on only if they first agreed to sign away their first born child. Needless to say, the experiment was a great success with the company connecting 250 devices in just 30 minutes.

Don’t worry, all the children were returned to their rightful owners.

Joking aside, this is a very real issue and should be a cause for concern for anyone making use of public WiFi networks. By enticing people onto their open network, F-Secure were able to collect a ream of email text, email addresses, passwords and other private data. Scary, no?

The two sides to the Public WiFi coin

  • The F-Secure experiment shows just how easy it is to collect email address, passwords and personal information which many of us simply assume is safe.
  • However, it also indicates the veracious demand for public Wi-Fi services.

NB. Don’t get too perturbed. The majority of Free Wi-Fi is safe, the likelihood of being hacked is not huge but then again you’d be wise to take the necessary precautions.

Protect yourself at all times 

When making use of public WiFi networks I would advise steering clear of websites which require a username or password - save that for more secure home or office browsing. Hackers employ tools such as ‘Packet Sniffer’, which will intercept data packets and harvest their information, giving them access to all of your browsing particulars.

*Check out this Fox News article for more information on the subject. 

What's the incentive? 

Most major – and some small ones too - towns and cities are now offering Free Public WiFi, but what’s in it for them?

It’s quite simple really; the more time we spend in town, the more money we’ll spend and the faster the local economy will grow. Admittedly this is somewhat of a generalisation and there are multiple facets to the incentives behind free public WiFi provision, but you get the idea.

This was exemplified by a recent statement given by Bournemouth Councillor, John Beesley, on the launch of the town’s new public WiFi service, who said: “We are confident that it will add to the positive experience of the town and help to generate business by encouraging people to stay in the town for longer.”

More coffee, Sir?

More connectivity on the move means more options for shoppers and more opportunities for retailers to sell more by integrating on-line and off-line shopping experiences.  For restaurants, bars and cafes, free WiFi provision can lead to increased customer dwell times and that all-important extra coffee or skinny lemon and poppy seed muffin (what?).

Based on our work with a large UK restaurant chain, we can see that this is really happening.  Providing a free Wi-Fi network to their customers has resulted in a growth in sales of 10% per year, per restaurant. Offering free WiFi access has also fostered better customer relationships, which can only have a positive effect on brand loyalty and future engagement.

So, is public WiFi a necessity? I would posit that it certainly is, for both consumers and businesses alike.

Let us know your experiences with public wireless networks, what do you think about our culture of constant connectivity?

What Next?

If you are planning to deploy an enterprise-grade wireless network or are experiencing problems with a existing setup, please feel free to contact Ensign Communications for a chat with our technical team.