OK, I admit it, I love to be connected everywhere. Even in my less-than-true geek status (well, way less actually), I constantly check my devices for connectivity. The BlackBerry works pretty much everywhere, the IPad I have to slip over to the 3G when there is no WiFi, but if I want to do real work, I need my MacBook Air, and for that I need WiFi.
That said, I use public WiFi a lot. It is convenient, nearly ubiquitous, and frankly, it is often in more pleasant locations than my office. Out of necessity (and a little paranoia), I have to be very careful when I use it. Why is that? Simply because there are lots of ways the bad guys can hurt you if you are not. The most common exploit is for the crook to place himself near a popular coffee shop or other public WiFi location and do a man in the middle attack. They grab your login info and loot your accounts by going back later.
The next is called an Evil Twin. In this one, the bad guys set up a separate network that looks like the real one, has a similar name, and may even have better signal. You mistakenly log on to the “evil” network, and they have you. This is very similar to the technique of setting up false websites that look legitimate but are really booby-trapped with malware. The last danger is newer, but growing – WiFi viruses. These act just like a normal virus but are spread via the WiFi network and do just as much damage.
How can you be better protected? I am assuming you will not give up the convenience, because I wouldn’t. You must ensure you are connected to the real network. If you are not sure, ASK. Only connect to password-protected sites. No password is a warning sign. Even if it is legitimate, bad guys will try to use it. Do not do anything sensitive on a public network. Banking, online purchases, or work related subjects should not be done.
Do not use the same passwords and usernames for all your activities. If the bad guy gets your wallet, do you want him to have your car and house too? Change them up. The use of firewalls and AV software applies here just as it does in all situations. None of them are perfect, but they at least make the bad guys work for it.
The last thing is decidedly old school and non-tech. When you work in public, be aware of what is happening around you. Someone can steal your password by watching you type it, they do not have to install a key logger to do it. Also, the ultimate “hack” is stealing your computer, so don’t go to the head and leave your stuff on the table unattended.
Using public WiFi will continue to grow in popularity, but let’s be safe out there.