These days, it seems like almost everyone has a smart device of one kind or another. Whether it is a smartphone, a tablet or a laptop, we never want to be far from our digital lives. As a result, there’s been a serious uptick in demand for wi-fi.
Previously, the place to connect to a wi-fi hotspot while you were out and about was typically a coffee shop or a public library. But in the past few years, some local governments have stepped in to try to go further. We are now seeing cities invest in large-scale, public, municipal wi-fi systems. This may one day transform the ways in which we interact with our devices, but if not done carefully, it might also lead to serious security risks.
New York City public wi-fi goes live
One of the largest public municipal wi-fi systems operating in the world today is the one that just went live in New York City, called LinkNYC. According to a report by The Verge, anyone can access free, gigabit-fed wi-fi if they are within 150 feet of stations on Third Avenue. The city plans to increase this access by opening as many as 7,500 wi-fi hubs throughout the five boroughs. These hubs, designed by CityBridge, will not only offer free Internet access, but will also come equipped with USB charging ports and even some tablets. Advertising will cover the cost of operation.
While this is no doubt an exciting development for New York City and its Internet-hungry residents, many security experts are concerned about the implications of a city-wide public wi-fi system.
“The first thing that pops into my head when I see public wi-fi is if I can access it publicly as a regular user, then hackers can get into it,” Joseph Pizzo, an information security professional, told The Verge.
Obviously, LinkNYC will have built-in security. The Verge reports that filters will prevent users from downloading malware while they are connected, and the city itself will monitor the system for misuse.
But experts are well-aware of holes in the system. For instance, users who visit non-encrypted websites while on public wi-fi may still be vulnerable to “sniffing” attacks. These occur when a malicious user searches for information being transmitted over the network. Typing sensitive data into an unsecured website could result in it being stolen.
Another type of attack is known as “spoofing.” This occurs when thieves set up a rival network that looks almost identical to the city’s public Wi-fi. Anyone who accidentally connects a device to the dummy network may inadvertently reveal confidential information and possibly open themselves up to identity theft.
If it succeeds in New York City, public wi-fi may very well make appearances in other major cities across the country. Residents might appreciate this new convenience, but they still need to be aware of how to best protect themselves from those who seek their personal information.
For those of us who are ready to buy into NYC's wi-fi experiment, we need to be prepared and proactive about venturing out into possibly insecure networks—so consider what tools or services you might invest in to protect your information and identity. Look into an identity theft protection service that monitors your credit, Social Security Number and public record, and can alert you to certain activity in your credit file that could indicate fraud. You also want to look for a service that provides software tools like keystroke encryption or anti-virus, and education on digital privacy and how you can lower your risk. Taking basic precautions like this can help you protect yourself so you can pursue your love of wi-fi.