Free Wifi: Why do we trust it?

Siân John

Imagine walking along a street on a sunny day. You’re thirsty and, sitting on a table outside a cafe, there is an ice cold, open bottle of beer. Would you pick it up and drink it? Probably not. Most of us would resist the temptation because we don’t know where it’s been or who’s already drunk from the bottle.

Now imagine you walk into a hotel or conference centre. You’re running close to your internet usage limit on your smartphone, but you want to connect your laptop to catch up on emails or carry out some research ahead of a meeting. All is not lost, as you notice there’s a number of free and open wifi networks available. Do you connect? Why would you trust this wifi more than the bottle of beer? Do you know where it’s been and who has been using it with any more certainty?

Yet many of us still connect to wifi networks every day. We’re seemingly happy to connect to a friendly or “safe” sounding wifi network, such as a hotel or conference centre name, and work online without ensuring that our communication is protected or encrypted.

This was the exact analogy made by Paul Vissidis at a conference I attended recently. Hackers have always been known to exploit trust, and our willingness to connect to unverified wifi networks is giving them the opportunity to steal passwords and monitor people’s online activity.

Wifi is the easiest, fastest and often the cheapest way to keep ourselves online in a world where we are scared of becoming disconnected. Perhaps, because it’s impersonal and online we simple don’t make the same connection. And everyone does it, so surely it can’t be that dangerous?

We are now demanding internet access everywhere, especially as we use mobile devices that constantly need to connect. As we pursue the anywhere, anytime, anyplace drive of cloud based services, we can only expect these threats to increase.

The solution is simple. Users need to be educated that they either mustn’t connect to these networks or ensure they are protected by connecting to a corporate VPN.  By following this policy before accessing any sensitive information, browsing the network from corporate devices or checking that any web pages or applications that we access run over encrypted links, we can feel more at ease.

So next time you see a free wireless network in a hotel, coffee shop or bar, stop and think before you link.


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