WiFi in the Sky: Is Your Airline Inadvertently Risking Your Online Safety?

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It’s a perk that is welcome by almost any traveler stuck for hours in a metal tube at 30,000 feet: wireless Internet!

For better or worse, wireless Internet service is almost everywhere.

Alaska Airlines, Virgin America, and Delta have already installed WiFi on its entire mainline fleet. American Airlines will install the service fully by the end of 2012. Same plans are in the works for JetBlue, Southwest, and Icelandair.

Online Safety Risks

With so many airlines offering — or planning to offer — wireless Internet service, are airline companies inadvertently risking their passengers’ safety?

The answer to that sticky question is YES! Travelers have become ideal targets for identity thieves because of the widespread use of public wireless at airports, hotels, and now, high in the sky.

Without proper encryption, almost anyone’s identity could be compromised or stolen. That includes passwords for email accounts and online banking, photos shared on social media, and a host of other sensitive personal information. The damage to one’s credit report can be long-lasting and almost impossible to correct.

After all, wireless connections are simple radio waves that can be “listened to” by anyone – your seatmate in 14B, the hacker in the airport lounge, as well as anyone else nearby.

It is frighteningly easy to do.

Identity Theft Complaints On the Rise

In 2010, the Federal Trade Commission received over 250,000 complaints about identity theft. The Bureau of Justice reported that 8.6 million households had at least one person age 12 or older experience identity-theft victimization in 2010.

Sadly, most victims won’t realize for some time their identities have been stolen or compromised. Perhaps most alarming is that Boingo –the world’s leading provider of wifi hotspots for airports and airlines – calls their own hotspots inherently insecure.

Boingo says individual users need to take responsibility for their privacy and security, and their no. 1 recommendation is to use a personal VPN.

Boingo’s sentiments — along with recent recommendations from the WiFi Alliance — clearly illustrate an unprecedented number of risks in wireless hotspots.

Niels Jonker, Boingo’s CTO, stated that the “single most reliable means of security when using public wifi is a personal VPN” due to the “proliferation of unmanaged free networks and new hacker exploits, people need a tool to protect their personal information while they’re online.”

Those quotes are certainly something to consider before logging on again in a wireless airline or airport hotspot!

Last month, the Chicago Sun-Times became the latest media outlet (which includes The Huffington Post and The New York Times) to endorse the use of a personal VPN like Private WiFi. The newspaper asked readers why they were “sending data in clear text over open networks, anyway? You should never ever do that.”

Other ways to bolster privacy while traveling? Use a strong password, use a firewall and antivirus software, and change the setting on your laptop to approve access points before it’s automatically connected to the Internet. It’s also wise to limit online shopping or bill-paying in wireless hotspots.

 

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Elaine Rigoli

Elaine Rigoli is PRIVATE WiFi’s manager of digital content strategy.