It’s everyone’s worst nightmare, isn’t it? Log in to your email at an internet cafe on an overseas trip, and all of a sudden your bank accounts are drained, your email address is sending Nigerian Bank Scams to all your friends and your Twitter is spamming half the world with cheap dodgy pharmaceutical ads…
But I think that, for all that we’re paranoid, we’re not very good at doing anything about it. I know I’ve used Wifi in public places (cafes, airports, hotels, libraries) heaps of time, and while I don’t do my NetBanking over Wifi (I don’t NetBank at all, to be honest) I’ve paid for credit card purchases, filled out forms with private information, logged into social networks, and more.
Ironically, the only time I’ve ever had an account hacked and stolen was in pre-wifi days when my old Hotmail account password mysteriously changed and friends and family reported receiving suspicious body-part-enhancing emails from “me”. Likewise my mother, before she discovered wifi, had her email hacked and messages asking for money come through after visiting an internet centre while on a trip in Europe. So perhaps the scaremongering about wifi security sort of masks the real message – wifi’s not the criminal here. Criminals are the criminals. And maybe wifi makes it easier for them to be on the same network as you and find a back door to your information, but these people are clever, and they’ve always been able to do it.
Lately there’s been lots in the news about the Heartbleed bug, a flaw in the security programming behind 90% of what we do on the internet. So even the computers are against us! Perhaps we’re fighting a losing battle!
I guess whatever you do online, whether you’re on an iPad in your local park on council wifi, on a university computer using the university’s highspeed broadband, or firing up your old desktop at home (hopefully not on dialup still!) there are things you can/should do to make sure that you’re not flashing your private data at the whole world:
- Don’t NetBank without some security in place. For example, many banks have a feature where money transfers out of your account network over a certain amount need to be verified with a code sent via SMS.
- Don’t leave your social networking sites logged in. At the very least, your younger sibling may update your status while you sleep to “I like poo”.
- If you don’t recognise the name of a free Wifi network, don’t use it. If you’re using the network in a hotel, cafe or other public place, check with the staff to find out which is the official network. Don’t assume that just because it says “hilton hotel wifi” that it’s the official network – cyber-criminals are clever, remember?
- If you’re overseas, try to use networks or internet facilities from recognised public organisations (libraries are great!). We UQ folk are lucky that we’re on the eduroam network, if you’re in/near a university town look for that.
- It might be better to buy a pre-paid 3G sim card for your wifi device, or a portable hotspot device, than rely on public wifi. The long-run cost (and convenience) might be worth it!