How Hackers Protect Themselves When Using Public WiFi


Every year, thousands of hackers and security experts descend on Las Vegas for two of the world’s largest annual hacker conventions: Defcon and Black Hat.

The first Defcon took place in June 1993. This year’s Defcon 22 saw over fifteen thousand hackers and security experts gather in Las Vegas to discuss all the new hacking exploits and computer vulnerabilities. While attendees learn how to wage new attacks on many systems, the conference is mainly focused on teaching how to prevent these attacks.

Black Hat started sixteen years ago to help provide security professionals with the latest news in information security risks, research, and trends. At this conference, many security researchers present their latest findings and security exploits. This year, eight thousand people attended.

And what are they doing at this event, besides learning about security risks and the latest research?

Why hacking, of course.

According to Imperva, Las Vegas normally sees about 20 hacker attacks on a normal day. During the two conferences, that number peaked at over 2600 attacks.

Guess what’s also available at this event? Free WiFi. So these conferences are a great chance to look at exactly how the world’s elite hackers and security experts protect themselves while using WiFi. (You may remember our CEO Kent Lawson attended the RSA conference back in February — it’s billed as “the largest and most important security conference in the world” — and he had similarly interesting findings about how elite hackers are protecting themselves at these events.)

Aruba’s WiFi Network

Aruba networks provided the free WiFi network for both conferences, something it has been doing for the past five years. It is important to note that the WiFi network Aruba provided for both conferences was not public. Their network was protected by WPA2 encryption that could only be accessed with a specific password, and it gave attendees the option of creating a private encryption key on top of that.

Nonetheless, a large percentage of the network’s users were also using a VPN to make sure they were fully protected. Other attendees used MiFi’s, a wireless router that acts as a mobile access point for a single user.

Interestingly, at one point Aruba found that an individual was trying to “sniff” the information being sent over the WiFi network. When they confronted him and asked him what he was able to view, he replied “Not much.”

Other attendees used burner laptops that could be wiped clean after the event, and some kept their devices in airplane mode the whole time so they could not be accessed by anyone.

How to Protect Yourself on WiFi

So now you know what the experts do to protect themselves when they are on WiFi networks. But you don’t have to be a security expert in order to know how to protect yourself.

All you have to do is follow a few simple rules, which are noted below:

  • Use strong passwords on all of your accounts: Unique passwords that use a mixture of alphanumeric and special characters (such as $, %, and #) are the strongest. But it’s also important to change them often; a good rule of thumb is at least every six months. And be sure not to use the same password on different accounts. You can use a free password manager like LastPass, which both creates and stores your passwords so you don’t have to remember them.
  • Use a strong firewall and antivirus software: Invest in a good firewall and antivirus system and update them regularly.
  • Avoid suspicious emails, links, and websites: If you click a suspicious link in an email or go to a suspicious website, cyberthieves can steal your personal information to hijack your identity and steal money and personal information from you, which can be a huge headache and costs thousands of dollars to fix.
  • Use a VPN while on WiFi: Whenever you log into public WiFi, anyone around you with the right spying equipment can see everything that you send and do online. A VPN like PRIVATE WiFi encrypts all of your information and makes it impossible for anyone to steal your data.

Following these simple rules will make sure that your computer and online security is as good as any security expert. And shouldn’t that be what we are aiming for?

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Jared Howe

Jared Howe is PRIVATE WiFi’s Senior Manager, Product Marketing Communications. Working in high tech for over 15 years, Jared currently lives in Seattle with his wife, daughter, and their two cats.

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