Earlier this week the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) released a new warning targeted towards travelers of the threat of malicious software injection on laptops through hotel internet connections. To me this was a little narrow and that we should broaden our thinking to include that general security and safe computing best practices should be observed when connecting to ANY wireless networks, not just hotel networks.
There are some basic rules that should always be observed whether you are at a hotel, an airport, your local Starbucks, McDonald’s or anywhere else that offers free wireless internet access, especially since most of these networks do not encrypt their traffic. This means that every bit and byte that you send over that network is being sent in clear text leaving you at clear risk. Places that offer free WiFi try to make it easy to use their service because they view it as a value add for coming into their establishment, however they are also doing so at the sacrifice of security.
All that said, here are a list of some recommended best practices to follow as you travel or just go about town with your wireless computing devices:
- Turn off your wireless capabilities when you don’t need them. As a bonus, you’ll usually greatly extend the life of your battery when you do this, too!
- Avoid unencrypted WiFi whenever possible. If you have one, use a cellular card instead. Cellular encryption is not perfect, but certainly better than no encryption at all!
- If you do connect to unencrypted WiFi, connect to a VPN immediately afterwards. If you or your company does not have one, there are several low-cost services out there that will provide you with a secured tunnel to encrypt your traffic
- Verify the exact spelling and capitalization of the approved wireless network that you should be connecting to. There is usually signage to this effect, or if you are at a hotel, the registration desk should be able to tell you. Frequently rogue wireless networks are setup with either inconspicuous typos or improper capitalization of the correct network name to try and get their name to appear first
- A rogue hotspot may also be setup using one of many default network names. Some examples are “Linksys”, “attwifi”, or “default”. Since many people already have these network names saved to their phones and computers, their devices may try to connect automatically. Make your best effort to remove these default names to prevent accidentally connecting to a malicious network.
- As a follow on to the previous point, in order to make sure that you aren’t regularly connecting to these default networks, be sure your network at home doesn’t use a default name.
- Regularly review your device’s “preferred networks” (generally this is a list of networks that the device has connected to before and will reconnect to automatically) and remove any unnecessary ones. Try to do this at least monthly.
- Do not update software when connected to an untrusted wireless network (this is also recommended in the IC3 warning referenced above).
At first blush this might seem like a lot to remember, but many of these recommendations can be implemented very easily, and many times can be accomplished in seconds. The headaches that you save by performing even some of the most basic safe computing practices are well worth the time investment.