Of the 2,2023 travellers surveyed, 83 percent used public WiFi hotspots during their journeys, and 82 percent said they were ‘very or extremely concerned’ about security while doing so. While widespread (and quite justified – see below) public concern over the insecurity of such hotspots is heartening, most take few meaningful precautions to protect themselves.
As David Gorodyansky, CEO of AnchorFree notes,
‘In the age of tablets, smartphones and ubiquitous hotspots, many travelers don’t realize that they are unsuspectingly sharing sensitive information with others on public Wi-Fi.’
22 percent of survey respondents said they would not connect to public WiFi because they ‘believe personal info at risk of being stolen’, while 37 percent noted that they had experienced content being blocked, or other forms of censorship when travelling overseas.
How VPN can help
Using a VPN creates a secure encrypted tunnel between your computer (which includes mobile devices such as smart phones and tablets) and a VPN server. This means that all data is secured, even if you connect to a fraudulent WiFi hotspot (not even your ISP can see your data).
It also means that all censorship issues are bypassed, as the only blocks in place might be those enforced by the country in which the VPN server is located, and VPN providers almost always ensure their servers are located in countries with free and uncensored internet access.
Furthermore, because you can usually choose where the VPN server you connect to is located, you can easily access content that is geo-restricted to that location. Some of the ‘censorship’ people encountered with video or music streaming websites may in fact refer to their inability to access geo-restricted content. Hulu, for example, only allows those in the United States to access its content, but by connecting to a VPN server located in the US, its content can be accessed from anywhere (DNS spoofing and proxy servers can also be used to achieve this).
The dangers of using public WiFi hotspots
The emergence of Firesheep in particular has shaken up the WiFi hotspot world, and focused the minds of security experts on the dangers of connecting to public WiFi networks. This add-on for Firefox is a packet snooper that lets even lay-persons with almost no hacking skills intercept unencrypted cookies sent from websites such as Facebook and Twitter over public networks.
This allows them to ‘sidejack’ a user’s current session and effectively use a website as that user (although it won’t give the hacker access to usernames and passwords). The hacker could then download personal details, send spam, delete the user’s accounts or change their password, or even download unsavoury material using their account.
The problem is made worse by the existence of ‘evil twin hotspots’. Packet snoopers and the like will only work on unsecured networks, and only when connecting to unsecured websites (non-SSL .i.e. ,their address starts with http:// rather than shttp://), and on things such as POP3 email and FTP connections (POP3 snooping is particularly dangerous as it gives hackers access to a user’s email details when they sync with POP3 servers).
It is therefore common practice amongst hackers to hang around public access hotspots, and set up fake mobile hotspots of their own, with names such as ‘Free Airport Public WiFi’. Users who make the mistake of connecting to one of these WiFi ‘traps’ allow hackers to download their cache, and possibly access shared folders. The hackers may also try to fool users into paying for internet access, and therefore handing over their payment details to the hacker.
Given that using VPN solves all these security issues, in addition to unblocking censored websites and allowing you to watch or listen to your favorite domestic media streaming services while abroad, all at what is usually a very reasonable price ($5 – $10 per month), using VPN on all your internet connected devices when travelling is a complete no brainer.