iKeepSafe Blog

The Scoop on Using Unsecured Wireless Internet Connections

By Kristy Philippi

Image credit:  http://www.bolbareilly.com/sumitbhatia/bareilly-using-unsecured-wi-fi-internet-connection/

Kristy Philippi, Ph.D. is an education consultant specializing in educational technology. She was the founding principal of Louisiana’s first public school where every student was issued and used a laptop in a business-like environment. Dr. Philippi has been recognized by a number of organizations for her innovation and leadership around using technology to engage students. She is a member of the Wasatch Branch of the American Association of University Women and serves on the advisory board of the Internet Keep Safe Coalition.

We have come to expect to have wireless internet access just about everywhere we go. At home, we can use our laptops to access the internet from any room in the house or we can go to coffee shops or fast food restaurants and surf the net. But have you ever stopped to think about the information on your computer or the information you are sending over the unsecured network or “hotspot?” Using an unsecured wireless connection is risky. Often, nothing sinister happens. However, the dangers are real and your important information is put at risk if you connect over an unsecured network. Anything sent in an email or saved on your computer could be at risk. We have all seen examples of children’s social media or email accounts being compromised and inappropriate material is posted in their name. An unsecured wireless account puts your child’s passwords and personal information out for anyone to see. The next several paragraphs describe the types of networks that are unsecured and the risks associated with using those unsecured wireless networks. 

How do you know if the network is unsecured?

A wireless network is “unsecured” if you can access the internet using the network without entering a password or network key. For example, a “hotspot” is a wireless network that is open and available for the public to use. They can be found in restaurants, airports, coffee shops, bookstores, hotels, libraries and just about any place that the public gathers. They are often unsecured so anyone in range can use them. In some cases like at hotels or even universities, the networks are “secured” because they require a network key. However, so many people that you don’t know have the key that it is just like using a completely open network.
What are the risks of using an unsecured wireless network?
RISK 1 – Leaving your home wireless network unsecured
It is extremely risky to leave your home wireless network unsecured. It is like leaving the front door open and going for a walk in the neighborhood!
  • A neighbor or even someone parked outside in a car can use your connection undetected and for free. The result can be as simple as slowing down your surfing because the “intruder” is using up your bandwidth. (This can cost money if your provider charges by the bandwidth you use.) But, if the intruder is illegally downloading music, movies or child pornography, the result could be more serious. A criminal who does not want to be caught can use your unsecured internet connection to commit crimes because when it is traced back to the source, your connection will be reported as the scene of the crime. While you might not be guilty, you will be the prime suspect and will have to defend yourself. In fact, many internet service providers include a clause in your contract that holds you responsible for any illegal activities that occur on your connection.
    • Also, once an intruder has access to your home network, they have access to everything you have stored on any computers on that network and anything you do online. And if you think you do not have anything worth stealing, think again. An intruder, once inside can access your tax documents, financial records, online banking information, credit card numbers, emails, usernames and passwords, and even where you are going online. More sophisticated intruders can install software that records your every keystroke and every site you visit.
    RISK 2 – Using Public Unsecured Networks or Hotspots
    It is very convenient to use the internet in coffee shops or the library but it is important to do so with care. These locations are perfect for students to meet and work on group projects. Criminals know this too. Sometimes, they watch the online traffic looking for valuable information such as credit card numbers, usernames and passwords, or online banking information. Other times, they can even set up hotspots or unsecured internet connections to “bait” you into sending your personal information over their network so they can steal it.
    Online shopping on an unsecured network is particularly risky because not only do you send your credit card numbers, but you also normally login or create and account sending usernames, passwords and even answers to security questions over the unsecured connection. Remember, the answers to security questions are designed to be things only you know so if someone else tries to access your account, they cannot answer the personal questions. But, if you send the answers over an unsecured network, anyone watching will have those answers too!
    What Are Some Simple Steps to Surf Safely?
    1. Secure your home network. Some simple steps are below:
    • Click the Router
    • Click on Settings
    • Change the Default SSID (a unique identifier used to name wireless networks)
    • Disable the SSID Broadcast (hides the network so it isn’t visible for all in range to see)
    • Change the default password

    If you need more help, check the router manual for directions.

    2. When you are on an unsecured wireless network, never shop online, transmit password information, credit card numbers or login to online banking, email, social media sites or any site that requires you send personal or private information.
    3. Before you send anything private on a “secured network” make sure it is a network you trust; where you know and trust everyone else on the network.
    4. Communicate the risks of using an unsecured wireless network to children and emphasize the importance of keeping their passwords and private information private.

    Categories: Privacy

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