For cybersecurity experts, it continues to be a mindboggling headscratcher. Despite endless warnings about the risk of getting hacked, travelers still find free airport Wi-Fi just too good to pass up.
“Just as a general rule of thumb, we always advise against using open free airport Wi-Fi connections or hotspots,” says Darren Guccione, CEO and co-founder at Keeper Security, creator of the Keeper password manager and digital vault. “A lot of people ignore the risks. They want to get online. They want to get some work done, but at the end of the day they’re running a risk of getting breached.”
Airports make ideal hunting grounds for cyber criminals, in part because there are so many easy marks in one place.
The latest Norton Wi-Fi Risk Report surveyed thousands of adults who used public Wi-Fi hotpots in 15 countries and found that travelers don’t think twice about connecting to any network that will get them online. More than half (53%) even admitted they can’t tell a secure network from an insecure one.
And another Norton study, the LifeLock Cyber Safety Insights Report, released last spring, determined that two thirds of Americans are willing accept risks to their online privacy in exchange for convenience.
But it gets worse. A report from security experts Coronet collected data from more than 250,000 users traveling through the nation’s 45 busiest airports and found that the vast majority of public Wi-Fi systems at airports posed a notable risk to passengers’ devices.
While most of the country’s busiest airports offer free Wi-Fi, some charge for the service on a daily or monthly basis – but even paid public Wi-Fi can be risky. “At some airports, they’re prompting you to enter your payment credentials and transmit that information on a connection that is not secure,” says Guccione.
Need internet access at the airport? Rather than using the airport’s network, do this instead:
Use your smartphone’s personal hotspot.
You already have a good solution in the palm of your hand. “It’s much more secure to use the hotspot that’s enabled on your smartphone,” says Guccione. “Almost every smartphone today, whether it’s an Android device or iPhone, has a built-in personal hotspot that is far more secure than public Wi-Fi.”
- For iPhone, go to Settings > Cellular or Settings > Personal Hotspot
- For Android, go to Network & Internet > Hotspot & Tethering > Wi-Fi Hotspot
Use a virtual personal network.
If you have no option but to connect to a public Wi-Fi network, it’s smart to get into the habit of using a virtual private network (VPN), which boosts security by creating an encoded tunnel between your device and a server.
“A VPN will help secure your connection to the internet and encrypt everything around you within that ecosystem,” says Guccione.
“Using a VPN — particularly on public networks but any network that you don’t manage yourself — is always a good idea since it prevents network traffic from being observed as easily,” explains Max Eddy, a software analyst at PCMag specializing in security services.
Notably, Eddy’s top picks for the best VPNs generally run $5 a month or less – about as cheap as a cup of coffee at the airport.
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