KSN Investigates: Public WiFi dangers

WICHITA, Kan. (KSNW) – Free internet is everywhere, and almost all of us have used it. Restaurants, coffee shops and hotels lure us in with the promise of easy online access, but what’s billed as free could end up costing you big in the end.

It’s important to remind people just because you can safely use a computer at home or work doesn’t mean it’s protected in a public setting.  A simple mistake or a small oversight could leave your personal information or even the use of your computer exposed to hackers. KSN enlisted the help of a tech expert to identify those mistakes and offer some simple solutions to keep you safe.

AN EXPERT OPINION

“It’s great that it’s all over the place,” tech expert Bill Ramsey said. “It makes us a very connected world, but there are some very big dangers involved.”

Bill Ramsey
Bill Ramsey

Ramsey has witnessed so many of those dangers first hand. Since his days in the Navy, he’s spent years protecting people from online threats. So KSN invited him to join us as we drove around Wichita looking for those things we’re doing to make us vulnerable.

“You can go to a coffee shop and get internet or just different hot spots all over the place,” Ramsey reminded us.

For so many, coffee shops have become their go to for free internet whether it be for business or pleasure. KSN started at a popular downtown spot where we had no problem using their Wi-Fi from the parking lot without a password.

Ramsey was pleased with what he found or in this case didn’t find. He didn’t see any computers that were vulnerable to file sharing. Most new computers default to that which provides an added layer of security some consumers don’t even know exists.

A SIMPLE MISTAKE

So we kept looking. Our second stop required a password which was readily available to paying customers. And it didn’t take long for Ramsey to find a mistake.

“There… bam, that one,” he exclaimed.

KSN then went inside Reverie Roasters and found the customer that was compromised.  The computer belonged to Tate Strasner, a pastor who was working on his church’s website.

Windows 10 network settings
Windows 10 network settings

“My guess is that when you connected to this network they asked if you wanted to be discoverable and you said yes,” Ramsey speculated.

Strasner nodded sheepishly. His mistake is a common one. The prompt asked if he wanted his connection to make him part of a “private” network.

“He thought that meant he was going to be private and people couldn’t see,” Ramsey told us. “What he should have chosen was public which turns on a firewall and applies a different profile to keep people off his computer.”

The public vs. private choice can be a confusing one. In this case, private means you are in a safe place where files can and should be shared like at work or home. Public suggests you don’t know or trust the people sharing your connection.

PRO TIPS | How to adjust your device for safe WiFi use

“It definitely puts my computer at risk for anyone looking to steal some private information which I’m not a fan of,” Stranser told us.

Strasner’s next issue came because this was a second-hand computer from someone he knew. That person had changed the settings to make files available even on a public connection. The simple fix there is to always wipe the computer clean and restore the factory settings if you’re buying one used.

“He made it look so simple,” Strasner said of Ramsey’s help.  “Just a few clicks and steps and it was safe again.”

Not exactly.

WHAT’S PACKET SNIFFING?

danger-free-wifiThe computer itself is safe from being compromised, but your online traffic is still subject to hackers using the same Wi-Fi connection. It’s called packet sniffing and requires certain software and a lot of time.

Basically, anything you do online is broken down into tiny packets of data to be transmitted and reassembled at their final destination. Those individual packets can then be looked at and could include usernames and passwords in plain text.

”Once you connect to Wi-Fi, connect to VPN and then every bit of traffic you send is encrypted,” Ramsey advised.

A VPN is a virtual private network. Most charge a subscription fee, but a few are free to download.  They disguise your online activity so it is not viewable by so-called packet sniffers. These are especially critical if you’re doing business or sending personal information.

RELATED LINK | PCMag: The Best VPN Services of 2017

We were curious where the responsibility ultimately falls.  Do the businesses face any culpability if you’re compromised?

“I’d say no,” Ramsey said. “They’re offering you a service and it’s not their responsibility to make sure you’ve protected your computer.”

That’s where this starts for all of us. Free to use doesn’t mean free of risk. Personal computers are much more vulnerable than phones or tablets, but even those aren’t completely protected on public Wi-Fi.

STEPS FOR SAFE USE OF PUBLIC WIFI

Use a VPN: A VPN, or Virtual Private Network, encrypts the data from your device to the VPN service provider. This reduces the risk of a man-in-the-middle attack where someone watches your internet traffic. There are some caveats, however. Not all VPN services are the same. Free services may not be as private as you think. Also, some companies will not provide services over a VPN, such as Twitter links, some Google search results and some streaming services. For more about VPN’s, see Wired Magazine’s “Beware: Most mobile VPN’s aren’t as safe as they seem“.

Some VPN’s that have received high praise include:

sslconnectionUse SSL Connections: An SSL connection is encrypted from your device to the website you are linked to. While some sites (banking, credit cards, etc) force you to use a SSL connection, some don’t. Before entering private information into a website form, make sure the connection is labeled as “Secure.” Example image at right is displayed by the Chrome browser when on a secure SSL connection.

Turn Off Sharing: As Bill mentions above, don’t share your computer’s resources when using public WiFi. If your software asks you whether the public WiFi you are connected to is “Private” or “Public”, always choose “Public”. By default, that will turn off sharing.

Turn off WiFi and Bluetooth when not in use: This is the most secure way of using your device in public. It is equivalent to “unplugging” the network cable to your device.

Use Anti-Virus and Malware protection software: Always use a reliable anti-virus / malware detection software package. For Windows users, you should make sure the firewall and Microsoft Security Essentials software that comes with the system are turned on. Other options can be found in the PCMag list of Best antivirus protection of 2017.

LINKS TO MORE INFORMATION