Is an Open, Coffee-Shop Wi-Fi that Dangerous?


We see and hear a lot about the security risks associated with an open Wi-Fi connection at, say, a coffee-shop or a bookstore.  Most news reports point out problems with such networks but do not necessarily offer solutions.  I attempt to do both, thus making you aware of possible problems and steps you need to take to avoid problems.

While open Wi-Fi connections of an unknown affiliation are truly to be avoided, fears of doom at known locations, such as the above, are overblown.  Let me not say there are no security problems at all with open Wi-Fi connections.  The problem boils down to a possibility vs probability issue - it is possible for a computer to be hacked at a coffee shop, but the probability of that occurring is rather small.  Although I do not have statistical data available, I explain here the plausible reasons for the lower probability.

Take it for Granted: Wireless Signals are Easily Intercepted

It is a fact that wireless signals are easily intercepted.  Analog signals (think radio and now defunct TV signals) can be scrambled to confuse the receiver so that it cannot catch-on to the true information being transmitted.  In the digital realm (computer communications, digital TV, DB radio), information to be sent can be encrypted using a key, transmitted, then decrypted at the destination using the same or different key.

Encryption in Wi-Fi Networks

Wi-Fi networks are built to allow encryption of information between a computer and Wi-Fi  router.  When one needs to connect to a wireless router, s/he would need a password to first connect to the router, and then a key to allow the computer to encrypt and decrypt information to and from router.  The password is known to only the router owner, and the keys are automatically generated by the router.  Thus, even if someone intercepts the signal, s/he would need to know the key used to encrypt the information.  The key is not always easy to compromise.

Open (Public) Wi-Fi

Which brings us to the issue of why public Wi-Fi hotspots are open; i.e., they do not need a password to connect to.  The issue is password distribution to users - it is cumbersome.  And why are they usually open?  Well, no password, no encryption, hence no key!

So, now, we know why open Wi-Fi hotspots are dangerous.  But, are they that dangerous?  And how can you protect yourself while still availing of the free available resource?

Using a PC

  1. First things first.  Use an anti-malware software, more ideally an Internet Security suite, so that in case a virus tries to access your computer, it will be caught and eradicated.  Microsoft Security Essentials, avast!, AVG, and others are available for free.
  2. Use a two-way firewall.  This is built into Internet Security software (Comodo is free).  Windows Vista and 7 (XP has a one-way firewall) include it and it is turned-on by default.  A stand-alone product, Zone Alarm, is a free and excellent tool.  A two-way firewall prevents a hacker from coming-in to the computer, and a rogue program on your computer from going-out to or communicating on the Internet.  Windows XP's firewall will prevent hackers from coming in to your computer.
  3. A firewall will also intercept the connection to a new network and prompt you to select the type of network you are connecting to: Home, Work, or Public.  Select Public.  This will immediately set the firewall to a very heightened state, though you need to make sure you are not sharing documents in your Public Folder with others on the network.  If you are, stop sharing anything in the public folder.
  4. Keep your computer's software (ALL software) updated with all security and other updates.
  5. Password-protect your Windows login.  If you do not, hackers will be able to connect to your computer with ease.
Using a Tablet or Smartphone

Tablets and smartphones are generally secure and do not need any additional apps to secure them.  It would, however, not be a bad idea to use some sort of security software.  Follow guidelines below.
  1. Do not jailbreak it.  A jailbroken device is a security risk.
  2. Install security software (Lookout for both iOS and Android; avast! for Android.  Both are free).
But, They ARE Open Networks

Yup . . . they are dangerous.  Someone with a few rudimentary tools could intercept your computer's wireless signal and know, at most, the websites you are surfing.  I touch on this topic again below.

What About Them Hackers with Sophisticated Hacking Tools?

They are actually looking for greener pastures where they will have a bigger return on their time (hacking) investments!  I am serious!  These sophisticated hackers would rather be at a location (really, the Internet) where they can access and compromise a larger number of computers.  By now, most people have realized the potential of security problems of open Wi-Fi networks and have taken steps to protect their computers.  In addition, Windows 7's security features have helped.  That's why I said what I said: it has become an issue of possibility vs probability,  The probability of computer being hacked at a coffee-shop or bookstore is rather low.

If They are Open Networks, Won't we be Putting Ourselves in Danger?

Like I said above, practically, if your computer is protected sensibly by following the guidelines above, the most that will get compromised is the sites you visit while there, and the other information that flows between your computer and the open network.  That is, people will see the websites you visit and the web pages that are pulled-up on our computers.  Other than that, they would not see much more.

But I do More Than Just Surfing the Web.  I Bank, I Pay for Products . . . 

That information is always protected and you are in no danger of divulging that information!  Say what!?  Are you crazy?  not really!  The danger here lies more in having a weak password or having no Windows login password; or having it compromised through surreptitious keystroke loggers already installed on your computer.  If this happens, you are toast whether you are at home or at a coffee shop.  Which is why installing anti-malware software is a necessity.

You are the Only One Saying that Banking Information is Safe! Are You For Real?

Yes!  And I would be correct in insisting that.  When you log-in to your bank's website; your e-mail account on GMail, Yahoo, or Hotmail; or most popular shopping sites, you will notice in the browser's address bar that the connection changes from an HTTP connection to an HTTPS connection.  The "S" implies Secure.  Technically, at that time, the information exchange between your computer and the website's servers (end-to-end) is encrypted.  The public key to encrypt information on your end is paired with a private key at the server end to decrypt the information.  The private key, as the name suggests, is known ONLY to the merchant!  Even if a hacker sits in-between your computer and the destination servers and intercepts that information, s/he will NOT be able to decrypt it!  Microsoft Exchange, TurboTax Online, and other online services dealing with sensitive information use end-to-end encryption to protect information.

So You are Saying . . .

With the necessary precautions outlined above, your information is safe and you can perform quite a few activities on your computer while connected to a public Wi-Fi network.  I would NOT connect to an unknown Wi-Fi network.  A little bit of vigilance goes a long way in keeping your private information protected.  Are there no hackers at coffee shops or bookstores?  You bet there are but they are few and far between.  Remember, no platform (Microsoft, Apple, Linux, and the like) is safe.  Everything can be hacked; it is just that hackers focus on compromising platforms that have a large number of users they can impact.  It is no fun compromising a few computers here and there; that would be boring.

Wish you all safe computing!

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