Open Wi-Fi Means Open Season For Hackers: How To Secure Mobile Connections

By | November 25, 2015

The world’s Going Mobile: The Who’s song about life on the road has taken on a prophetic new meaning in the smartphone era; unfortunately, mobile networks are typically about as secure as a tent trailer. There are now over 7 billion mobile subscriptions, over 30% of those with smartphones, and global mobile data traffic grew by 69% last year. Indeed, Gartner predicts that by 2018, more than half of us will a mobile device our first option for online tasks. However the dark side to the mobile life is far greater exposure to cyber attacks and information theft due to weak, often non-existent network security at public Wi-Fi hotspots. But businesses needn’t fear Wi-Fi and attempts to squelch its use by employees are foolish. The mobile hotspot train has left the station, but unfortunately the typical connection is about as secure as an unlocked tour bus at a truck stop. The seedy side of the mobile life is far greater exposure to cyberattacks and data theft due to weak or nonexistent network security at public Wi-Fi hotspots. But businesses needn’t fear Wi-Fi and I explain why in this report. In fact, attempts to squelch its use by employees are unlikely to end well. A better bet is taking steps to educate and protect users.

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By now, all IT pros and tech-savvy users should know that using open Wi-Fi is an open invitation to be hacked. Yet, based on the number of such people I regularly see at major technology events blithely using unsecured hotspots, it’s worth repeating the basics: open Wi-Fi, i.e. not secured by WPA2, is trivially easy to spoof, tricking victims into connecting with an attacker’s AP instead of the real thing. It starts with mobile clients prioritizing convenience over security. As< I wrote last year, virtually all Wi-Fi devices broadcast a radar-like ping searching for previously accessed networks. If an AP responds with a known SSID, the requesting client automatically tries to connect. On open hotspots, or a secured AP for which the client has cached the correct network password, this is automatic and hackers can easily exploit this implicit trust. The key lesson is to connect and then encrypt everything. 


Historically, enterprise VPNs have been all-or-nothing affairs that tunnel all client traffic to the data center, even that destined for the public Internet. This invariably annoys both users, which can’t access local resources like NAS shares or networked printers, and WAN admins which see their circuits clogged with superfluous traffic. The upside is that forced tunneling to a private VPN does thwart potential wireless MitM exploits and allows organizations to enforce content filters and network security policies for remote users, however there are better ways to manage data leakage and client security policies than by brute force. Instead, limit private VPNs for access to internal resources, not the Internet writ large.

Source: Cisco

Hairpin traffic from remote VPN clients destined for the public Internet needlessly loads enterprise WAN circuits. Source: Cisco

My full report takes a look at hotspot hacking, how businesses with mobile users can protect themselves and lays out things businesses should know, including:

  • There are nearly 6 million public Wi-Fi hotspots worldwide; most have weak or nonexistent network security./li>
  • The single best way to protect mobile employees against hacking on public networks is the use of a VPN.
  • VPNs are available as a service; managed remote access and VPN services are also available from carriers.