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How to Surf the Web Safely at 30,000 Feet

Unthinkable just a few years ago, Internet access is now widely available on planes in flight. But it carries the same risks as on the ground.

Chances are, you've already done what was unthinkable just a few years ago: Surfed the web from a plane.

But security experts warn that logging on to a plane’s WiFi system carries the same risks as logging on to any public hotspot. The bottom line is that sophisticated hackers and crooks can intercept your internet activity and gain access to your digital life.

"It even doesn't matter if these networks are encrypted or not," said James Lyne, the head of security at Sophos Security. "When you connect to them, you're handing over your destiny of your internet connection to some unknown stranger."

To safeguard your digital privacy, Sophos Security suggests taking some basic precautions:

  • Treat every public WiFi as an open door to your computer.
  • Avoid accessing your bank account information via public WiFi. If someone is watching, they can quickly grab your username, password and account balances.
  • If you’re concerned about email security, wait until you’re on ground and using a trusted internet connection to check your inbox.
  • And depending on your level of paranoia, you may want to also avoid logging on to any social media websites where you keep personal information or photos.

Anytime you’re using a public WiFi, even while flying across the country, there’s a chance someone is watching.

The nation’s largest provider of inflight WiFi access, Gogo, says its connection to access Wi-Fi is secure — but once users start surfing the web, the connection is not encrypted.

"The connection through which users purchase Gogo is an SSL-encrypted link and is secure. However, following the purchase, due to the many users of our Inflight Wi-Fi access point, Gogo does not provide an encrypted communication channel between our Inflight Wi-Fi access point and the user's computer."

"Past the purchase point, GoGo operates similar to any public WiFi hotspot on the ground," the company said.

Gogo, along with many security experts, suggest customers use a Virtual Private Network (VPN) for the best security. A VPN takes your information, puts it into a bubble and encrypts it, protecting the data from being intercepted.

Another good security practice involves ensuring that file-sharing is not enabled while accessing the Internet from an un-encrypted public network and that laptops have firewall and other protection against malware.

"The reality is, cyber crime is entirely opportunistic and every time you connect to the internet, you are a target," Lyne said.