Before you get excited about free Wi-Fi, think about who might be able to see what you are doing.
If you do not need a password to join a network, there is no way to be sure that you are not being watched.
“If you are sitting in a public business and you are using their Wi-Fi, just imagine that everything you are doing you are holding it up on cards so everybody in the shop can see you,” said Stephen Tate, who oversees the Computer Science Department at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
Tate is an expert in trusted computing, but even he cannot tell the difference between two insecure Wi-Fi networks.
“If the coffee shop is providing an insecure network connection, an open connection where everybody can connect to it, there is no difference between that one and a rogue, fake, insecure connection that somebody else sets up,” Tate said.
Many businesses offer open Wi-Fi for their customers’ convenience.
Hackers set up their own networks in hopes that you will join their network instead of the business’ legitimate network.
According to Tate, “Whether it is legitimate or fake, you are completely in the hands of whoever runs that hot spot.”
UNCG put on a demonstration for ‘FOX8 On Your Side’ to show how hackers can monitor your every move.
“Whoever controls the access point completely controls wherever it goes after that,” Tate said.
Unless a website offers end-to-end encryption, everything you type can be captured by hackers. They can also redirect you to visit illegitimate sites.
While hackers are one concern, where our date is going on legitimate networks is another issue.
“There are lots of laws now about businesses, particularly internet providers, and their records and the laws, particularly federal laws, use different standards than the Fourth Amendment,” said Steve Friedland, who is a professor at Elon University School of Law.
Friedland is a widely respected legal expert, a published author and former federal prosecutor. He has researched data gathering and surveillance extensively.
“Businesses use this data to determine what’s going on with their customers and to make predictions in the future,” Friedland said.
Our use of public Wi-Fi is one of many ways we create data. Our smartphones are another way we create data.
According to Friedland, “The government now is having a much easier time with tracking because we are tracking ourselves. We are self-trackers these days.”
Friedland cautions that we should be turning our Wi-Fi off when we are not using it.
“Wi-Fi is basically sending signals to everyone saying here I am," Friedland said. "People do not realize that. So, you might put on your jacket, bundle up if it is cold out and say I am just looking ahead. But what you are really doing, if your Wi-Fi is on, is you are sending signals that others can receive,” said Friedland.