Open Wireless Networks: Just Say No!

Do you ever connect to an open, unknown wireless network? Do you leave your garage door open when you go on out of town? Do you throw water balloons at uncaged tigers?

A recent survey by Wakefield Research and the Wi-Fi Alliance revealed that 32 percent of respondents admitted to leeching from their neighbors’ open — that is, unsecured — wireless connections. Setting aside for a moment that such behavior isn’t neighborly, it can be dangerous.

Why do I frown on the practice? First, you’re using bandwidth that somebody else is paying for. Second, you’re bogging down their connection with your traffic. Third, depending on their deal with their Internet service provider and how much you download, you might be setting them up for unexpected charges.

But the primary reason not to connect to unknown, open wireless networks is that you could be walking into a cyber-trap. You might fall victim to harmless pranking from an industrious network owner who filters your traffic over to a separate wireless network to invert all the pictures on web pages you visit. Or you might run afoul of a nefarious networker who has set up a honey pot — a wireless network that’s been left open on purpose — to capture the packets of data exchanged between you and an unsecured website.

Or worse. It could be man-in-the-middle-type setup that uses a server to log each and every bit of information you send through the compromised network. It could include rogue DNS records that lure you to a fake version of a popular website (e.g., Facebook). You think you’re logging into the real deal but you’re actually transmitting your credentials to a ne’er-do-well with some networking chops. Woe to the web surfer who uses similar login/password combinations for every site registration!

Networking is a two-way street. If you take, you may well be giving as well, and you may not ever know it. So a couple of simple precautions are in order.

It’s easy to train yourself not to connect to wireless networks — or, at least, ensure that Windows doesn’t do so automatically. Also, you might want to make sure your own network is just as secure as those you connect to. D-Link makes this process exceptionally easy — trust me, you won’t need a networking encyclopedia to follow along. In a future post, I’ll show you how to make sure your network is bulletproof. Until then, resist the urge to connect to open Wi-Fi signals!

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