Hacked in the Halls of Justice: Without a VPN, Court WiFi Hotspots Aren’t Secure

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A colleague at PRIVATE WiFi recently emailed me about a problem which once again highlights the dangers of using public hotspots.

What’s interesting is that the hotspot she was worried about isn’t in one of the usual places like a coffee shop or an airport or a public library. It’s at the New York State Supreme Court.

Like many courts across the country, free WiFi is available there for prospective jurors who need to connect for work or to simply while away the hours while they’re waiting to be called.

But when my colleague logged in to the Court’s public WiFi network, she was shocked to find that access to PRIVATE WiFi’s VPN (Virtual Private Network) was blocked. She wondered why.

Earlier in the day, the clerk of the court had briefed members of the jury pool about the legal requirement to keep court proceedings confidential. He claimed that jurors had gone to jail for violating that rule by tweeting and posting information on Facebook that was supposed to have stayed in the courtroom. Then he issued this stern WiFi hotspot warning:

“I know what is going on with you all. Someone over in that part of the room (pointing to back left of room) just posted to their Facebook: ‘I don’t think that guy is a judge.’ And someone over in this section of the room (pointing to front section) just posted, ‘I am getting out of here no later than 3:00! This is bXXXshXX!’ And that is not going to happen!”

My colleague wasn’t sure whether the clerk of the court was monitoring hotspot communication that day or whether he just said that to scare members of the jury pool. So we decided to ask the New York State Supreme Court. But a spokesperson for the Court declined to answer that question. So you be the judge.

We also asked whether the Court blocks VPNs. The answer was no, the court does not do that. But one thing is certain. Whatever the reason is, if you can’t use a VPN to connect to a court hotspot, you risk having your sensitive information exposed to intruders. Using software that’s readily available on the Internet, anyone within 300 feet can eavesdrop on hotspot users’ traffic and steal their sensitive information – everything from passwords to credit card numbers and confidential business information.

That’s why courts around the country are warning WiFi hotspot users that their wireless networks are not secure. Here are just a few examples:

“The (Sacramento Superior Court) wireless Internet service does not use any form of encryption or authentication mechanisms. A wireless network possesses all the security vulnerabilities that a wired network has. All wireless transmissions occur over the airwaves and therefore are vulnerable to unauthorized disclosure of information, denial of service (DoS) attacks, and unauthorized access, to name a few.”

“The (Idaho) Federal Court is not providing secured access. Everyone who uses the WiFi network is strongly encouraged to use security software that provides a good firewall and virus protection.”

“The Cumberland County, Pennsylvania Court of Common Pleas WiFi Disclaimer: This is an open wireless network.

No network communication is 100% secure
No network communication should be considered private or protected
All communication over The Court’s network is subject to monitoring

Additionally, media and material stored in The Court’s Network environment are subject to disclosure under Pennsylvania’s Freedom of Information Law.”

Remember, just because you’re in the halls of justice and you’re surrounded by officers of the court doesn’t mean your sensitive information is secure on its public WiFi network. A Virtual Private Network that sends all your traffic through a secure tunnel is the only way to ensure the data traveling to and from your laptop or mobile
device is encrypted. That makes it invisible to hackers.

Before you use a court WiFi hotspot, be sure to ask what the official policy is on using VPNs. If you find you can’t use your VPN, don’t transmit any sensitive information over the court’s wireless network that you can’t afford to lose.

If you do, you could end up becoming a cybercrime victim before you ever get the chance to serve on a jury.

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Kent Lawson

Kent Lawson is the CEO & Chairman of Private Communications Corporation and creator of its flagship software PRIVATE WiFi. He combined his extensive business and technical experience to develop PRIVATE WiFi in 2010. The software is an easy-to-use Virtual Private Network (VPN) that protects your sensitive personal information whenever you’re connected to a public WiFi network. Follow Kent on Twitter: @KentLawson.