Have You Been Hacked Using On Campus Wifi?

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If you’re a college student who’s addicted to wifi, when you’re surfing the Internet or cracking the books on campus, you could get hacked. That’s because some campus wireless networks that students hop every day may not be controlled or secured by IT administrators. The result could be that students could end up losing their identity to cyberthieves long before they get their degree.

Campus wireless networks are like any other public wifi network that’s full of strangers. Everyone using them needs to protect themselves from nosy neighbors and other malicious users. But students are often unaware that some of the college wireless networks they connect to aren’t secure. Case in point: in 2010, a reporter for Chicago Maroon demonstrated that the Firefox plug-in Firesheep could be used to hack into and modify student accounts on Facebook, Twitter and other websites on the University of Chicago’s wireless network. The reporter viewed 60 accounts during the two-week testing period. The same year, a reporter for cmcforum.com used Firesheep on one of Claremont College’s wireless networks. He was able to hack into his Google, Facebook and Twitter accounts within four minutes and post messages.

But privacy and security threats like that don’t seem to faze a lot of college students who continue to clamor for on campus wifi. According to a recent survey done for the Wi-Fi Alliance by Wakefield Research, 87% of U.S. millennials (ages 18 to 29) polled said they need to have access to wifi in schools and universities. A 2008 Wi-Fi Alliance survey found that 75% of American college students who responded think wireless access actually helps them get better grades. Nearly half said they’d rather give up beer than their wifi.

In the age of mobile education, the average student arrives on campus with a laptop and a handful of other wifienabled devices – from smartphones and xBoxes to iPads and iPods. When students plug in a router to accommodate them, they create rogue access points that aren’t configured and don’t belong on the school network. It’s a safe bet that some of those rogue APs are being used for malicious purposes, like the propagation of malware and identity theft. If your school doesn’t require all campus wifi enabled devices to be registered, find out why.

Cybercriminals aren’t only focusing on wireless networks. They’re also targeting college and university databases, one of the richest sources of information for identity theft. Between 2008 and 2010, dozens of higher education institutions like the University of Florida, Purdue University and UC Berkeley experienced 158 data breaches that compromised 2.3 million records.

A 2009 report by Identity Theft 911 called America’s Universities:  A Hacker’s Dream, found that a patchwork of disparate computer networks and servers – each with a different security policy – makes IT departments “powerless to enforce any standards.” That means that students’ credit information and Social Security numbers are at risk.

It’s not surprising that millennials, aged 18 to 24, are the number one target of identity thieves. According to a 2010 survey from Javelin Strategy and Research, it takes them almost three times longer than any other age group to figure out that their identity has been stolen.

If you’re a college student, here’s what you can do to make sure you don’t become a victim of wifi crime on campus.

  • Make sure your computer’s firewall is turned on and your antivirus software is up to date.
  • Turn off file sharing when you’re using public wifi.
  • Don’t connect to any ad hoc wireless networks. If you do, you could unknowingly be sending a lot of your personal data to a hacker’s hard drive.
  • Use strong passwords composed of letters, numbers and symbols that are easy for you to remember but difficult for others to guess.  Never use the same password for different sites; and change them often.
  • Avoid storing passwords in laptops and mobile devices.
  • Turn off your wireless card when you aren’t online.
  • Be careful what information you share on social networking sites.
  • Request copies of your credit reports and review them often to make sure no one has been applying for credit in your name.
  • If you can connect to any wireless network for free without a password, don’t use it to access any personal information that you can’t afford to lose.
  • Use a VPN (virtual private network) like PRIVATE WiFi™ to ensure that all the information transmitted to and from your computer goes through a secure tunnel that’s hidden from hackers.

If you’ve been hacked using on campus wifi, give us a shout.  We’d like to hear what happened to you.

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Jan Legnitto

Jan Legnitto is an investigative journalist and documentary producer who writes about criminal justice and intelligence issues. Jan is also a frequent contributor to the Private I blogs.