What the Open Wireless Movement Means for Your Wireless Security

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Imagine a world where your smart devices could automatically join dozens of free open wireless networks – and those networks belonged to total strangers. Consumers who want to participate would need to set up openwireless.org as the network name — and those who want to connect to those networks need to search for that name. That’s the bold vision of the Open Wireless Movement, a joint project of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Mozilla, Fight for the Future, and other groups.

You might ask why anyone would want to share some of their wireless bandwidth with anyone nearby. If you believe Open Wireless, it is because it serves the common good and promotes Internet efficiency.

While that sounds like a great idea, it’s not one that many police departments and law enforcement agencies share. They oppose open wireless networks because they want to avoid mistakenly raiding the homes of innocent people whose open WiFi connections are being used for illegal purposes. On the other hand, Open Wireless advocates argue that sharing your home WiFi connection actually promotes online privacy by making it harder to link an IP address to a specific person. They say your identity is not your IP address.

Can Shared WiFi Be Secure WiFi?

The Open Wireless Movement claims that home users can share their WiFi without compromising their bandwidth or their wireless security.

An FAQ section on its website says that running an open network will not open users’ devices to attack as long as they run a separate “guest” network. But that means home WiFi users’ security depends on them correctly configuring their own routers to turn on guest networks. There’s no guarantee that users will get the configuration right. And there’s no guarantee that any WLAN called “openwireless.org” is a friendly network, not an Evil Twin designed to steal users’ sensitive information.

What’s more, there is no over-the-air encryption used and no enforced separation of guest traffic from the homeowner’s router. That means there’s nothing to stop strangers from accessing and using “openwireless.org” without logging in, or controls to prevent abuse.

In short, the security challenges facing the Open Wireless Movement are daunting. Strangers could access and use an Internet connection for many kinds of illegal activities. Open Wireless recommends taking these steps to reduce the risk of misidentification:

“Give your network a name that makes it clear that it’s open (“openwireless.org”) and you like it that way; and get a privacy-friendly VPN and a router that supports VPN tunneling.”

A personal VPN like PRIVATE WiFi is the only way to protect your sensitive information from hackers on open WiFi networks. 

Can the Open Wireless Movement buck the overwhelming wireless security trend to lock down your home network with a strong password?

Stay tuned. Later this month, Open Wireless will unveil its free WiFi router firmware at the Planet Earth (HOPE X) conference in New York. It will allow home WiFi users to share a portion of their WiFi networks with neighbors and passersby without a password.

Ultimately, Open Wireless says its software will combat IP addresses being used to identify a person which will create a more anonymous version of the Internet. 

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