Saturday 4 December 2010

Public Wi-Fi – the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Following on from whatsinKenilworth's Free Wifi news, we are delighted that Paul Barfoot from Techpoint in Warwick Road has the following advice for all of us.

Public Wi-Fi – the Good, the Bad and the Ugly
We see them everywhere, people with their laptops sitting in coffee shops, restaurants, hotel lobbies, airports or Internet cafes glued to their screens, checking email or surfing the web. 
Wi-Fi (Wireless Fidelity) has made it possible for people to roam around a room or even a house untethered from a cable while still connected to the Internet. As great as all this freedom is, there are however some downsides.

First, the basics, most laptops today come with Wi-Fi access built in. For those that don’t, a USB adaptor is available for around £25. The radio signal covers an area of about 90 meters, but does not penetrate stone or metal very well. 

Secondly, when you connect to a public Wi-Fi (also known as a Hotspot), you do not connect directly to the Internet. Instead there is a wireless modem in the corner (you can often see the little antenna sticking up) that is plugged into the establishment’s DSL connection. The speed of the connection will be a function of the establishment’s subscribed bandwidth and the number of people connected to it at any given time.

So, where’s the downside? Virtually all public Wi-Fi connections are not secure. Whether data encryption is enabled or not is not determined by you, but by how the wireless modem has been configured. If there is encryption, your laptop will detect this. Encrypted connections will require a password, which is why you are unlikely to encounter them at a public hotspot. Security, then, ranges from open (none) to WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy), a very weak encryption protocol, to WPA-2 (Wi-Fi Protected Access), which is strong and virtually unbreakable when used in conjunction with a strong password. 

So where do the dangers of Wi-Fi reside? Because the signal is being transmitted through the air rather than through a wire, it is not hard for someone with the right kind of equipment to intercept and read those signals. This is called sniffing. If you’re just surfing the net, there are no real dangers, but if you should go to a site, such as your bank, that requires you to provide an ID and password, that information could be compromised. In some cases even for secure connections, i.e., those using https:, the ID and password may be sent in the clear before a secure connection can be established. If the little lock icon in your web browser is closed on the page on which you enter your ID and password, you should be safe. The only way to protect this vital information is through strong encryption. Since this, for the most part, doesn’t exist at Internet cafés and hotspots, it’s best to not log into sites that have sensitive financial or personal information. The only other option is to establish a VPN (Virtual Private Network), which creates a secure tunnel between your machine and a secure Internet connection on the other end. This is something the average user is not even going to be aware of let alone know how to implement.

Just what are your chances of having your ID and password information captured while using a Wi-Fi hotspot? Who knows? Chances are probably low, but you have to ask yourself, “Do I feel lucky?” Would you leave your house unlocked while you’re out? Then why would you leave you personal information exposed? 

However, all that being said, Wi-Fi is a great way to stay connected while on the go. And with a little care it can also be a perfectly safe experience.

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