Whether you’re traveling by air or by land, you’re probably going to bring along some work or some entertainment to occupy you during your trip. While that used to mean bringing along a physical book to read or some documents to look over, most travelers will now bring along their portable devices instead. But before you log on and take advantage of the free WiFi in the airport or onboard your bus, ask yourself: is it actually worth the risk?
There’s little doubt that we rely on internet access for most daily tasks. As of March 2017, there were 3.74 billion internet users worldwide, with nine out of 10 Americans regularly going online. It’s no wonder, then, that we don’t want to give up our internet access when we’re on the go.
Each day, more than 3 million people fly on commercial aircraft all across the globe. Many of those people are even willing to pay extra on top of their travel expenses to gain access to an airport lounge or obtain a WiFi pass while up in the air. But even if you think you’re connecting to a private and protected network, you could actually be wrong.
According to a recent report conducted by Coronet, a cybersecurity firm, certain airport networks are more vulnerable than others. Of the 45 different airports, the firm reviewed, the San Diego International Airport and Orange County’s John Wayne Airport are the top two on the list of 10 most vulnerable hubs. But even if you’re flying out of or through another airport that isn’t on the list, you could fall victim to a common scheme: “evil twin” Wi-Fi.
The concept is pretty simple. There’s probably a legitimate Wi-Fi hotspot provided by the airport or the airline, which criminals will mimic in their creation of a lookalike network. Often, the two hotspots have very similar names, making it tough for travelers to discern which one is the real hotspot. The real problem is that connecting to the wrong network can allow hackers to steal your passwords and account information. It may also make it easier for them to direct you to phishing sites or convince you to download malware onto your device. In addition, they’ll be able to view the contents of any files you download while you’re connected to their hotspot.
One Pew Research report found that more than half of respondents connect to potentially unsafe Wi-Fi networks, with one in five admitting they perform sensitive activities (like online banking or shopping) while connected to these networks. While there are things you can do to make it more difficult for hackers to access your information, like double-checking the URL to ensure it’s legitimate and encrypted or making sure none of your passwords are easy to guess, the best thing you can do is to create your own hotspot rather than relying on the ones provided by the airport or airline. It might not be free, but it’ll be a whole lot safer. You can also create a Virtual Private Network (VPN), which basically places a safety barrier between your device and the server, increasing your security.
Of course, it’s not only aircraft travel you’ll need to worry about. U.S. passenger bus travel increased by 7.5% from 2011 to 2012, with many buses and even trains offering Wi-Fi perks to entice passengers. But recent reports have found that those promises of internet access are often empty, as connections are inconsistent at best (and non-existent at worst). Some app developers have even created successful business models based on the fact that Greyhound, Amtrak, and Megabus customers consistently complain about wireless internet inaccessibility. And even if you are able to connect, you’ll face the same security issues as you do in an airport or even in a coffee shop.
According to the 2016 Norton Cyber Security Insights Report, 49% of Americans never use a VPN when connecting to public Wi-Fi, yet 57% of respondents believed they were likely to have their identity stolen after entering their information when connected to public Wi-Fi. No matter where you are or where you’re going, blindly connecting to public Wi-Fi simply isn’t worth the risk. But with just a couple of extra steps, you can connect to a network that provides you with better peace of mind — and perhaps even a better wireless signal.