Two University of Maryland professors, David Maimon, an expert in online criminal behavior, and Jonathan Katz, the Maryland Cybersecurity Center director, recently received a $200,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to study how people access and use public WiFi hotspots.
The duo plans on visiting more than 100 locations that offer public WiFi hotspots, from coffee shops to libraries, and then study user behavior at each location, such as what websites users are visiting and what data they are exposing over the network. Other study variables include the time of day users tend to access the network, the number of users at each location, the socio-economic factors of the surrounding neighborhood, and if the network is secure or not.
Maimon and Katz also will be able to see if any cybercriminals are accessing these networks as well.
One of the purposes of this study is to find out if people are more likely to access sensitive personal information, such as logging into their online bank account, at an upscale restaurant or library, for example. Users may be assuming that it’s safe to access sensitive information on public WiFi hotspots at these places.
The professors also want to study the behavior of hackers on public WiFi hotspots. Are they targeting upscale locations that offer free public WiFi, or are they instead targeting crowded coffee shops because there are more people there?
The ultimate goal of this project is to generate awareness of how unsafe public WiFi really is and to help consumers develop best practices when they access public WiFi hotspots.
The Best Way to Protect Yourself on Public WiFi Hotspots
We applaud the effort of the Professors Maimon and Katz to help publicize the risks of public WiFi hotspots. There is no doubt that many users do not fully understand them and that many do not take any steps to protect themselves from cybercriminals while accessing public WiFi networks.
There really is only one best practice public WiFi users need to know, though. If you are going to access public WiFi on your laptop or mobile device, use a VPN.
Even if you are not visiting potentially sensitive websites — such as your online banking account or social media accounts — hackers can still see everything you do online. If you are not using a VPN, everything you do on public WiFi can be seen any anyone who wants to look at it. A VPN like PRIVATE WiFi encrypts all of your information and makes it impossible for anyone to steal your data.
While we eagerly await the results from this study, the only thing you really need to know for your peace of mind is to always protect yourself on public WiFi by using a VPN.