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The Dangers of Unsecured Wifi Hotspots

Learn Tech Talker’s do’s and don’ts of surfing public internet networks. Plus—how to protect your identity and personal information on WiFi.

By
Eric Escobar,
March 6, 2013
Episode #034

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The Dangers of Unsecured Wifi Hotspots

Earlier I talked about traveling with your electronics. In that episode, I mentioned that connecting to an unsecured or unofficial WiFi network at the airport is a really bad idea. There are many reasons you wouldn’t want to do this and today I’ll explain why.

Types of Wireless Networks

Let’s look at what an unsecured network is. Generally you can call a network “unsecure” if there is no password or login credentials needed to access it. You just get on and surf the internet. These types of networks can still be found in many places, but in recent years the trend has been towards security (thank goodness).

Find out if you've mastered all you need to know about WiFi networks by taking the Tech Talker Quiz.

There are generally two types of WiFi networks you can access: ad-hoc networks and traditional access point networks. Ad-hoc networks connect devices directly to one another, while traditional networks connect devices to a central router. So, for example, you can connect two laptops or your laptop and your phone together without the need for a router or any other hardware. This would create an ad-hoc network. This is different from a traditional access point network where each device connects to a router.

So that “free public WiFi” network you encounter at the airport is actually an ad-hoc network that was probably started as a prank long ago but still persists to this day. Basically, when you try to connect to this network, you are actually connecting to another computer. And when you connect to this computer, your computer will then also be set up to broadcast the “free public WiFi” network to other devices around you, essentially allowing access to all your private data to anyone within range. Bad idea!

This is just one specific scenario of why you shouldn’t connect to an unknown network. Now, let’s dig into a few more serious reasons:

Why You Shouldn’t Connect to Unsecure Networks

Say you’re sitting in a coffee shop and decide you want to check your Facebook page and your email to kill some time. You scan the available networks and see one that’s open and unsecured. You connect and start surfing. Coffee and free WiFi, what could be better, right? Wrong! A hacker is also fond of coffee shops and he is located within range of the router you connected to. He’s waiting for one or more people to connect to the network so he can start a man in the middle attack. Within a few minutes, he could gain access to all your passwords, including bank accounts, emails, and anything else. 

Here’s a really easy way to visualize this:

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