Wi-Fi Security: Have We Learned Anything?

Carl Weinschenk

Insurance company CPP sent an ethical hacker to six British cities, where he spent 30 minutes using freely available software to try to hack wireless networks. Though the experiment, which is described in the Telegraph, was conducted in the United Kingdom, there is no reason to believe that the results would be be radically different in the States.


The results are disheartening, and suggest that not much has been learned in the decade or so that Wi-Fi has been popular. The cracker, CryptoCard Executive Vice President Jason Hart, found that just under half of the 40,000 networks he tried to access had either very rudimentary encryption or demanded no password at all. More specifically, the story said, 9,249 asked for no password-despite the fact that 82 percent of people in England believe that networks are secure.


The Telegraph story is not isolated. Last month, Sue Marquette Poremba over at Network Security Edge pointed to a story at Computerworld that raised the same yellow flags. It seems as if time has stood still, in a way. Much of the content of stories-even at sophisticated sites as Entrepreneur-read as if they were written at the dawn of the Wi-Fi age:

Hackers and crackers are everywhere, looking for easy marks. Believe me when I say they're just as likely to hang out at your favorite Starbucks as you are, Ms. Entrepreneur. They could be sitting with a latte and a laptop on the sofa right next to you. And don't look for Boris- and Natasha-style cartoon characters here. ("Fearless Leader say we steal computer access from moose and squirrel!") They are far more subtle than that.

That's certainly good advice. But it seems a bit dated-even besides the reference to the classic but prehistoric "Rocky and Bullwinkle" cartoon. Could it be that 10 years on, folks are still as nave about the dangers of public Wi-Fi, and to such a great degree have ignored the problem?


The Entrepreneur piece, which was written by Mike Belicove, did point out that the technology is changing. He recommends a personal virtual private network (VPN) for those who want to keep working from public hotspots despite the dangers.


PC Magazine offers a slideshow with 10 suggestions on optimizing security on hotspots. The tips:

  • Pick the securest network.
  • Select the "public network" option.
  • Use a VPN.
  • Practice good security within the device.
  • Don't use public hotspots for banking.
  • Don't use automatic password-saving utilities.
  • Use HTTPS and SSL.
  • Don't keep sensitive data on the device.
  • Use a firewall.
  • Keep the operating system and applications patched and updated.

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Add Comment      Leave a comment on this blog post
Oct 21, 2010 10:56 AM Loraine Lawson Loraine Lawson  says:

Guilty, which is sad because I'm one of the most paranoid people I know.

I know the risk, but it's so tempting to just jump on and not worry about it. I do try to follow most of the basic protocols, but, for instance, I'm pretty sure my netbook couldn't handle a firewall. (Then again, part of my negligence is that I haven't even investigated it.)


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