How public is your Wifi?

When we go to an internet cafe, sign into a free network and access our accounts, we generally assume that most people in the building are there using the internet for similar reasons. Although this may often be the case, it is not true all the time. Internet cafes and places that offer free internet access to paying customers are seen as lucrative havens for the unethical hacker. Unethical hacker meaning – those technology nerds that use their expertise of knowing all the bugs and loop holes of systems, programs, and devices for personal gain. So why preface hacker with a negative value proposition of “unethical” when the term “hacker” in itself is generally loaded with connotations? Because, nowadays there are “ethical hackers. Since the internet has become somewhat of its own sovereign country, they are similar to that of a travel agent who, once upon a time, helped to devise one’s trips, giving travels tip on how to travel safe and smartly – the “Ethical” Hackers do the same for the internet. Ethical Hackers are consultants for safety, or maybe the better analogue here is, they are like the Sex Education teachers of the internet. They show people how easy it is to get in trouble, and what one can do to stay protected – if you get my drift.

How is there even an outlet for an Ethical Hacker career? With over 1.43 billion smartphone users world-wide, among other personal devices, it is very likely that many of those users have at one point in time used an open WiFi sources to sign into programs with sensitive information about themselves or their company, leaving them vulnerable to hackers with malicious intent. In 2013 alone Risk Based Security reported that more than 822 million records were exposed – records of which every detail of one’s identity was accessible. And although most educated technology consumers are aware of the privacy risks they take when signing into unsecured networks, it is often forgotten, or inadvertently ignored out of necessity – hence the need for ethical hackers to reinforce to people, and businesses alike, just how easy it is for someone with a little skill, a half of brain, and the right tools, to gather all the information one needs within minutes to ruin an anonymous person’s life. This is the reality of the world we live in these days, and we need to get serious about wearing protection.

Here are just three, out of the many things, internet users can do to prevent themselves from being a vulnerable target.

1) Encryption:

It is best to make sure, and double check a few times over, that the network for which you are signing into is encrypted. Encrypted networks are there to protect users from unwarranted surfers– i.e. hackers. However, it is important to also make sure that, even though a network says they are encrypted, the network you are signing into in the public space is in-fact the network it says it is. Hacking trolls redirect traffic to networks of their own that they create for open source settings with a few tools and tricks of the trade. Often times a personal smart device will scan all the networks available and connect to the first readily available option. Hackers generally label their networks something benign, like a fictitious cafe name, to come across as safe to the user. If your device ends up connecting to a less-than-trusted source such as this type, it is even more vulnerable to be hacked, with or without decryption software.

2) Keep Operating Systems Updated:

It is easier for hackers to find bugs in the system of outdated operating systems, these bugs providing loop holes making them more at risk. While it is a simple form of protection to update your system, often times it is easier said than done since most people don’t keep on top of their updates, due to time, money, or laziness. However, those annoying reminders on our smart devices that pop up every two weeks innocuously telling us our systems needs to be updated, might just be able to save our virtual lives.

3) Not Using Internet Cafes

Now, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t log onto to any network outside the iron fence on our fancy office building or the isolation of our four-walled home, but rather I am suggesting to not do all your bills, emails, and SSN juggling on an open source WiFi network. However, if you are just wanting to plop yourself down next to a big cup of your favorite local coffee and get into a raging game of virtual scrabble with a buddy halfway across the world, I think that should be fine, although I would use an alias.

To get a little smarter about the reality of digital identity fraud, Read Maurtis Martijin’s article on ethical hacker Wouter Slotboom on Matter.

By Kayleigh Stack