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News & Features | Jul 2nd, 2013

In-Flight WiFi: Why You’re Totally Exposed Every Time You Connect

Jan Legnitto

Travelers are getting more interested in WiFi in the sky. According to a recent survey by FlightView, almost three out of five respondents would consider purchasing in-flight WiFi if the airlines pushed the offer to their mobile device before they boarded the plane. Right now, connecting at 35,000 feet isn’t that easy. Airplane WiFi isn’t widespread and speeds can be frustratingly slow. That’s why the FCC approved new rules this spring to expand in-flight WiFi access, improve quality, increase competition and lower prices.

Seven in 10 people use their portable electronic devices on flights, according to a joint study by the Airline Passenger Experience Association (APEX) and the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA). But without access to WiFi, often the only option available to passengers is offline activities. “Expanded availability of in-flight WiFi will help meet demand from travelers to connect to a full range of communications services while flying in the contiguous United States,” the Commission said in a statement.

But before we get high on the promise of fast, cheap 24/7 in-flight WiFi, is anybody thinking about whether it’s safe? The fact is, connecting to a public WiFi hotspot in the air isn’t any more secure than connecting to one on the ground. The only security built into airplane hotspots is in the connection through which you purchase time on the wireless network with your credit card. That link is encrypted. After that, whenever you’re online in the air, you’re flying without a security net. Your sensitive information – and if you’re a business traveler, your company’s confidential business information – can be sniffed and stolen by hackers.

Sitting anywhere on a plane, a hacker can set up an Evil Twin, a fake wireless network designed to trick you into connecting to it. Once that happens, your private information goes through the hacker’s device where it can be captured and used to commit identity theft and credit fraud.

Cybercrooks know that most smartphones and tablets aren't protected by security software. And almost 30% of passengers have accidentally left their mobile devices on during flights, according to the APEX/CEA study. That makes them especially juicy targets for hackers.

Even worse, Flightglobal recently reported that Steve Jackson, the head of security for Qantas Airways, said the introduction of internet connections on planes opens everything up for cybercriminals trying to hack into aircraft systems. And panelists at an International Air Transport Association aviation security conference warned that hackers could gain access to passengers' mobile devices as well as airline company databases.

That’s why it’s important to keep your feet on the ground every time you use WiFi in the air.

• Install firewall and anti-malware apps on your mobile devices and promptly install app and OS updates.

• Use long strong passwords of upper and lower case letters, numbers and symbols and different passwords for each site. Don’t automatically save them.

• Never connect to an unfamiliar wireless network. Even if the name looks like the real one, check to make sure it’s not a fake.

• Disable features that allow your mobile devices to automatically connect to any wireless networks within range.

• Turn off file sharing to prevent hackers from stealing sensitive information from your smartphone or tablet.

• Turn off WiFi when you’re not using it.

• Use a virtual private network to encrypt your data when you use hotspots in the air and on the ground. VPNs create a private network across the public network which prevents hackers from intercepting your sensitive information. The Federal Trade Commission, the FBI, and the Better Business Bureau recommend using VPNs at public WiFi hotspots.

 

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