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Is it safe to use public Wi-Fi networks?

Tzvi Kasten, Andriy Okhrimets and Artem Kharchenko, GlobalLogic, Ukraine | April 2, 2015
Wi-Fi has significantly changed the way we work and play, enabling us to interact with the digital world from anywhere in the physical world. Furthermore, free Wi-Fi access is on the rise, from local coffee shops to international restaurant chains. However, the convenience of free Wi-Fi comes with some real threats, from computer viruses to identity theft.

To ensure secure communication, each user must obtain a unique PSK before connecting to an access point, which is simply too difficult for most public venues to manage. Some network operators like Verizon enable users to more securely access hotspots by obtaining credentials via a secure cellular network and then authenticating users to the access point, but this approach is currently limited to cellular network providers and has its own set of security concerns.

Even though technically there is no connection between the public Wi-Fi network and a user's home network (i.e., different SSIDs and IP addresses), there is still the concern that a hacker can connect to a network hosted on the user's device and exploit any potential vulnerabilities.

Although you always run a certain amount of risk when connecting to a public Wi-Fi hotspot, there are certain measures you can take to protect against attackers. Here are the most common precautions:

It is easy to take free Wi-Fi access for granted. Unfortunately, as public hotspots become more prevalent, so will hackers. Your best protection against data theft is a solid understanding of Wi-Fi and its vulnerabilities and taking a few commonsense precautions.


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