Ah, the portability of a laptop or tablet. Take it with you as you sprawl on a resort lounge chair or perch at an airport gate this summer.
But before you get too relaxed, beware. Lurking on that public Wi-Fi network you're using might be identity thieves and account hackers who are waiting to pounce on your information.
“If you are logged in and it’s not secure, pretty much everything that travels over the air is vulnerable,” said Chris DePuy, vice president at the Dell’Oro Group, a market research firm in Redwood City, Calif.
There’s a lot more traveling over the air these days. Wi-Fi usage among the public is booming, making it more of an opportunity for hackers. The first quarter of 2012 showed a triplefold increase in Wi-Fi usage from the first quarter of 2011 for AT&T Wireless, DePuy said.
Yet, while the volume of usage has multiplied, “the security measures that public hotspots use hasn’t seen any change,” said Hemant Chaskar, vice president of technology and innovation at AirTight Networks, which offers WLAN security solutions in Mountain View, Calif.
Be on your guard
Wi-Fi security experts say while there’s little need for outright paranoia, it’s always prudent to be aware of the scams that are possible.
“Consumers should take reasonable precautions when using an unsecured Wi-Fi hotspot, much as they would also guard their personal belongings, but there is no reason to stop using Wi-Fi in hotspots,” said Kelly Davis-Felner, spokesperson at the Wi-Fi Alliance, an Austin, Texas-based industry group.
The security landmines for users occur because anyone with a laptop can pose as a hotspot, DePuy said. Hackers and identity pirates can create a fake SSID, the public name of a wireless network.
A fraudulent SSID such as "Free Airport Wi-Fi" will be enough to fool many users into typing in online-account passwords and usernames.
The bad guys can then see the sites the user is visiting and their login credentials as well. Since many, if not most, people reuse passwords for different sites, including accessing email, the risk of identity theft rises, say experts.
Watch what you send
One of the most practical things a traveler can do to protect data is to refrain from sending sensitive data over the airwaves while using public Wi-Fi. In other words, visiting personal health care or financial sites are no-no’s.
When you're in an airport, DePuy advised, look for signs advertising the Wi-Fi service of a known company, rather than tapping into a generically named “airport hotspot."
To be sure of safety, a user could also pay for a secure Wi-Fi service like Boingo or iPass, DePuy said. Other options are using a smartphone's "tethering" feature to get online, which can add to wireless bills, or, with some configuring, "tunneling" through an insecure hotspot using a secure VPN, or virtual private network.
There are also new versions of protocols that will increase security measures, Davis-Felner said.
“The current form of Wi-Fi security, WPA2, is very sophisticated,” she said. “Ensuring that your transmissions are encrypted with this method is the best protection a user can take for both current and future threats.”
In the end, security issues with hackers are a “cat-and-mouse game,” Chaskar said. While hackers are definitely getting more sophisticated, “technology is more sophisticated as well, to keep one step ahead.”