Airport Wireless Networks – Not As Safe As You Think


Whether you’re a business traveler touching base with the home office or a vacationer catching up on some last-minute Christmas shopping during holiday travel, airport wireless networks are a welcome distraction during a layover.

But beware…

According to a recent article in Forbes, anyone who logs on using an airport wireless connection is instantly exposed to data and identity theft.

How Bad Are They?

Forbes interviewed a so-called “white-hat hacker,” working for AirTight Networks (which makes wireless security software and hardware,) and found that during AirTight’s survey of 20 American airports, agents had identified serious security flaws in nearly every network. Some airports even allowed critical baggage handling and ticketing data to pass through their network unencrypted—a potential security risk in more than just the digital sense.

The purpose of the tests was to alert airports to the problem in the hopes that they would choose to hire AirTight as their security provider, but in the short term, let it stand as a warning to travelers: You are nowhere near as safe logging in at an airport hub as you are even at home. Even shopping malls and many universities provide more network protection to their users, and since there are currently no laws on the books that require airports to try any harder, don’t expect any of this to change overnight.

Here’s a quote from Forbes on how bad things are:

They found rampant phony Wi-Fi hot spots created by phishers and, at several large airports, plenty of open or insecure networks run by critical operations such as baggage handling and ticketing. Almost all public networks allowed data such as user names and passwords to pass through the air unencrypted. Only 3% of people used something more secure.

How Do I Stay Safe?

Most security experts would recommend these four steps to relative safety on public wireless networks like those found in airports:

  1. Be sure that you’re connected to a legit network. Phishers sometimes set up bogus hotspots in airports, waiting for unsuspecting travelers to log on.
  2. Use a firewall.
  3. Don’t type in any credit card information or critical passwords while connected to these networks.
  4. Disconnect from the network when you’re not using it.

These steps won’t guarantee you 100 percent safety, but it’s a good start if you decide that uploading those Christmas photos to Flickr can’t wait until tomorrow.

This video from Forbes provides more details on what you should watch out for:

Author: Dave Nielsen

I started using computers in 1978 on the Apple II and was first online (using my “high-speed” 1200 baud modem) in 1989. I’ve managed web sites for several Fortune 500 companies and for internet start-ups. Working for one of those start-ups is what brought me into the world of credit. I was part of the the executive team that ran QSpace, the first company to offer credit reports over the internet.

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2 Comments

  1. I was traveling earlier this year and noticed all the strange wireless networks being broadcast in Chicago O’Hare. Bummer that I hooked up to a few – hope I didn’t do any permanent damage.

  2. Morale: when on public wireless network only enter you credentials into secure (SSL/HTTPS) web sites. Alternatively you can use VPN (such as loggin into corporate nework over SSL) and access any sites from there – all data will be encrypted. If you want to go 100% wireless, you may be interested in a wireless printer too.

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