WiFi Footprint: Personal VPNs Endorsed as WiFi Hotspots and Autoconnect Functionality Proliferate

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“WiFi footprint” is a simple term for a complex issue: the exploding pace of WiFi hotspot creation is not abating and soon a roamable, global alternative network will become our reality.

According to Marcio Avillez, vice president of network services at a company called iPass, organizations ranging from platform players to independent coffee shops see opportunities in making WiFi available, while major telecoms operators are investing heavily in WiFi rollouts.

“The proliferation of devices, especially tablets, the majority of which are WiFi only, has increased users’ appetites for WiFi. These devices are being used way beyond typical business travel locations like hotels and airports,” said Avillez.

That’s certainly an understatement, as the company recently expanded its WiFi network footprint to 13 million hotspots across 120 countries. This includes more than 20 airlines (up from nine airlines just one year ago) and over 800 passenger trains, such as ICE in Germany, DSB in Denmark, and Virgin Trains in the United Kingdom.

In a world seemingly saturated in WiFi, the notion of autoconnecting to these networks might seem appealing. However, whether using a laptop or mobile device, security threats remain a constant.

Laptops At Risk

The next version of Windows, Windows 9, is rumored to have a feature called WiFi Sense, which automatically logs consumers into “secure” public WiFi networks that they had previously accessed.

While it’s less of a nuisance to not have to go through the normal login process every time, people may forget they are logging into a public WiFi hotspot.

Don’t be fooled: it may seem secure because a password is required, but every person on the same WiFi hotspot can see what everyone else is doing with the right equipment.

What About Mobile?

In addition, big mobile phone providers like AT&T and Comcast have spent millions of dollars setting up an entire network of free WiFi hotspots from coast to coast. For example, AT&T has set up WiFi hotspots in many McDonalds and Starbucks locations. But did you know that the company created a setting in their mobile phones that connects those phones to all “attwifi” hotspots automatically?

This means that as owners of AT&T phones pass one of the many thousands of free available WiFi hotspots, their mobile phone will automatically connect and they won’t even know. And that’s a problem!

Here’s why this is dangerous: all public WiFi hotspots are completely unsecure, which means that any WiFi hacker on the same AT&T network with simple software could look at anything someone is doing online: checking email, IM’ing with a friend, or logging into social media or even banking websites.

Not only that, but a cybercriminal could create a fake network with the same name (“attwifi”) which the phone would automatically log into without you even knowing it. The WiFi hacker could perform a man-in-the-middle attack, where they route all information through his own computer, steal sensitive personal or financial details, and then send the victim on to the Internet. This is certainly worrisome.

Even AT&T is worried; its website’s Wireless Support section states, “Unsecured public Wi-Fi connections open you up to several security risks. It gives hackers an opportunity to capture your personal or private information that you’re sending to and from the Internet via your tablet, smartphone, or laptop – without you even knowing.”

Further, AT&T recommends the use of a personal Virtual Private Network (VPN) for the most secure connection: “This protects your device just as if it were connected to a secure network,” according to AT&T.

Although users can disable the autoconnect feature by turning it off on their iPhones or Android phones, the best approach is for consumers to install a VPN like PRIVATE WiFi on all their mobile devices. That way, even if they accidentally connect to unsafe WiFi hotspots, their data will always be encrypted and safe from cybercriminals.

WiFi hotspots are everywhere, and are increasing in number every day, but you can keep yourself safe at all times by using a VPN, just as AT&T and so many others wisely recommend. Remember, hackers can’t steal what hackers can’t see!

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Alok Kapur

Alok Kapur is President and Chief Operating Officer at PRIVATE WiFi. In this role, Alok drive all aspects of marketing, business development and partnerships, sales and customer service for the company. Follow him on Twitter: @Aloknyc.

  • Truthteller

    Tunnel Bear and Hotspot Shield were not mentioned.