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Airports, Wi-Fi and VPNs

Since most of us fly in and out of Newark Liberty International Airport, you might want to know that it’s ranked fifth on one list of airports where your phone is mostly likely to be hacked. Setting up a VPN (virtual private network) might not be your answer, either, because they are not always as reliable as you think for protecting privacy. Your best protection is your own cybersmarts.

Newark’s lack of security was highlighted in a recent article by Tech Republic about the 10 US airports where you’re most likely to be hacked. That article was based on a report by Coronet, an internet security provider, which looked at the 45 busiest airports in the country. The report applies mostly to businesses, but a lot of it can apply to all travelers.

Why are airport wi-fi systems vulnerable? Lax cybersecurity at most airports lets bad guys onto insecure public wi-fi to introduce a plethora of advanced network vulnerabilities, such as captive portals (AKA Wireless phishing), Evil Twins, ARP poisoning, VPN Gaps, Honeypots and compromised routers. Any one of these network vulnerabilities can empower an attacker to obtain access credentials to Microsoft Office 365, G-Suite, Dropbox and other popular cloud apps; deliver malware to the device and the cloud, and snoop and sniff device communications. Further, not all VPNs give you rock-solid protection against attacks, and USB charging stations are notorious being vulnerable to attack.

To be fair, the report puts the probability of connecting to a medium-risk network at 1 percent and the probability of connecting to high-risk network at 0.6 percent. The same numbers for the worst airport, John Wayne Airport-Orange County Airport are 26 and 7 percent, respectively.

But why take a chance when you can take steps to reduce even the slightest risk? Even at a 1 percent risk, you’re still gambling, and the cost of a breach could be more than the cost of more data on your cellular plan. To be safe, use cellular data in public places.

But let’s try to put all of this in perspective. If you’re checking your email or browsing the internet at the airport, you’re not using much cellular data. The heavy use comes in streaming movies or TV shows or in downloading content with a lot of pictures and video. To keep data use minimal, change your settings so you don’t download pictures and video. If you can, download and store reading and viewing material onto a device before you leave home. If not, buy a newspaper or carry a book to kill time at the airport.

When you’re at various locations – anywhere in the world – make sure you check that you are on a legitimate network. In Europe, for example, we found that the wi-fi networks were faster than data networks, and that made it better to use them to download email. But if speed is not an issue or if the wi-fi is slow, you’re safer on cellular.

We’d also like to add one more reminder: Although this article deals with airports, the same safety precautions apply to any public network. They’re all prime targets for hackers. The notorious bank robber Willie Sutton was once asked why he robbed banks. His answer: “That’s where the money is.” Today, data is where the money is; hence the hackers.

If you have any questions about securing your phones, devices and computers, call us – 973-433-6676 – and email us.