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Free Wi-Fi at airport? What to watch for

February 3, 2009 12:00:00 AM PST
There are all kinds of security risks at airports, but now there's another threat Internet security experts say you need to be aware of. Your laptop might be the problem.We're talking about Wi-Fi hacking. The airport is nearly the perfect place for hackers to access sensitive and personal information. It's easy to do, but it's also easy to fix.

Travelers and laptops seem to go hand-in-hand these days, especially now that most airports offer wireless access to the Internet. The service is a lifeline for businessman Jeremy Shepherd.

"I use airport Wi-Fi at nearly every airport I go to," said businessman Jeremy Shepherd. "I'm able to do e-mails, check in for flights -- basically business on the road."

But a new survey warns it may not be business as usual. Airtight Networks, a wireless security firm, recently dispatched so-called "White Hat Hackers," or Ethical Hackers, to 20 U.S. airports. Their mission was to test the security of Wi-Fi systems and the people who use them. The results were that 97 percent of airport Wi-Fi users were vulnerable to hackers.

"We found people checking the stock market, you know, buying stocks," said Rick Farina from Airtight Networks. "We saw people selling stuff. We saw bank accounts. We saw personal e-mail information."

Like all public Wi-Fi systems, airport Wi-Fi is unsecure so that the public can access it hassle-free. Farina says airports are natural targets for hackers, and if you don't add extra security measures they can easily crack your connection. Once in your system, hackers can grab any passwords and files you use.

Farina also warns he regularly finds access points run by hackers that have generic names like "Free Public Wi-Fi."

"You think, 'Oh great, I'm getting free Wi-Fi at the airport.' You shop online, you bid on things on eBay, you check your e-mail. All of that data goes right through me, my access point."

Be aware that there are also fake Wi-Fi hotspots that look just like legitimate sites and are tough to detect. But most networks offer extra security you can download for free.

"I always recommend if the hotspot offers some kind of security you should really try it out," said Farina.

For example, some offer a free Virtual Private Network (VPN) to download that will encrypt 100 percent of your traffic.

"It will make a tunnel from your computer directly to your office network, and all of that information will be encrypted," explains Farina.

Farina also says it's important to look for symbols that indicate a legitimate Wi-Fi system, such as the antenna symbol. If you see a computer symbol instead, that's a red flag.

Neither the Department of Homeland Security nor the Transportation Security Administration regulate Wi-Fi at the nation's airports. So no matter what system you use, the Federal Communications Commission recommends people never access sensitive information when online publicly through a wireless system.


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