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Understanding the Safety of Free Airport WiFi

Major international airports like Corvera Airport Murcia see hundreds of thousands – if not more – of passengers pass through the terminals every single day of the year. Smaller airports also see their fair share of air travellers coming and going. All travellers rely on stable and secure WiFi to go about their business between destinations, or pass the time while waiting for their next flight.

Free airport WiFi – like all public WiFi networks – is often taken for granted. While most people expect the occasional hiccup or delay when travelling via a plane, it’s fair to say that hardly anyone would expect to be the victim of cybercrime during their journey.

Connecting to public networks poses risks that travellers should bear in mind, even if using airport WiFi for basic tasks like accessing flight information, reading emails, or web browsing. Despite this, Norton – a well-known security brand – conducted a survey that found 60% of people fail to take appropriate security measures when using public WiFi. 38% of ‌ survey respondents expressed a lack of confidence in the safety of their personal data, further emphasising the importance of the issue.

While connecting to unsecured WiFi networks is riskier than connecting to a secure, password-protected network, understanding some key safety measures and precautions will help preserve your data and keep you safer. This article outlines some key points and best practices for staying safe while you’re using WiFi at the airport.

What are the Risks of Using Free, Unsecured WiFi?

Airports are well-equipped to handle the physical security of travellers, but built-in WiFi connectivity is often seen as a convenient luxury. As such, digital security often takes a back seat in comparison to rigid security clearance controls between the terminal and the various gates.

High-profile incidents like the London City Airport hack have made it even more pressing for travellers and airports to exercise basic cyber awareness. Here are just a few risks when using free or public WiFi without proper controls in place:

Identity theft: Through man-in-the-middle (MITM) tactics or intercepting data sent over unsecured and unencrypted networks, hackers can steal information entered on a public server, from names and addresses to phone and National Insurance numbers.

Data breaches: An entire organisational WiFi infrastructure can be forcefully shut down via an insider or external threat. Data breaches are increasing in volume with many organisations deploying strategies to isolate and contain threats while managing their responses.

Spoofing: Malicious actors can create fraudulent web pages that appear innocuous and unharmful, but once capturing user identities and login credentials, can take over accounts and restrict account recovery.

Stolen bank or credit card information: Unsecured WiFi may allow for the easier interception and theft of financial information when making transactions or transfers between accounts.

Business email compromise (BEC): Emails can be compromised and used fraudulently for business travellers utilising the WiFi network.

Phishing and social engineering: Attackers may deceive users into divulging personal information via emails or text messages from ‘legitimate’ senders, or encouraging users to click links, not realising their danger.

Malware infections: Downloading apps or files in order to access airport WiFi can happen. Suspicious downloads hide malware that gives bad actors access to devices and data stored on them.

How to Stay Safer When Using Public Airport WiFi

Staying safe while connected to an airport WiFi network requires a few essential steps. Of all the millions of daily worldwide travellers, the chances of you succumbing to a cyber attack may be low in the scheme of things. However, it’s important to look beyond the convenience of free WiFi; while it may provide a reprieve from using limited mobile data, safety should always come first.

Here is all you need to know about how to stay safer on a free airport WiFi network:

Don’t automatically join a new, free network. Disable the automatic available WiFi connection feature on your device. Some can be configured – by default – to join available WiFi networks if within range, but this should be turned off in a busy airport and other public areas. If joining an airport WiFi network, confirm the correct network with airport staff and ask them for any further connection steps.

Deploy antivirus software. With cyber threats emerging, antivirus vendors continually update their software. All devices you travel with must have up-to-date antivirus software installed, where infected or suspicious files can be scanned, isolated, and contained without disrupting your experience.

Use a password manager. Most people tend to reuse passwords across a broad range of accounts and systems. It’s wise to get out of this habit, as so many cyber attacks occur due to weak passwords; with three in four people at risk of being hacked. Consider using a password manager tool to create strong, complex passwords for each account you have on your device, using a combination of letters, numbers, and special characters to make them almost impossible to crack. The best part is the tool remembers your passwords for you.

Take advantage of MFA. On top of strengthening passwords, bolster security with MFA (multi-factor authentication). Request that a verification code be emailed or sent by text message to notify a need to authorise a login attempt, regardless of whether you’re connected to the WiFi or not. Should there be malicious activity afoot, MFA ensures that only your trusted device(s) can verify a login attempt.

Use safe browsing tools. Digital security tools help you avoid malicious and fraudulent websites or those that lack recommended security certificates like SSL/TLS. These tools alert you of a potentially harmful site or app, allowing you to double-check its validity before deciding on whether to proceed or not.

Invest in a VPN. VPNs (virtual private networks) encrypt the data you send over WiFi, making it nearly impossible for third parties to intercept your activity, eavesdrop, or find your IP address. Most cybercriminals look for easy exploitation targets available to them, and your VPN means they’re less likely to spend time crafting intricate resources to circumvent encrypted servers.
Use a mobile hotspot. Mobile data connections are, according to recent findings, predominantly stronger than unsecured public WiFi networks. Therefore, if you can spare the data from your provider’s allowance, set up a hotspot via your phone and share that data with the device that you need WiFi access to. You will have exponentially more control over its usage.

Airports provide public, accessible WiFi to travellers as an amenity to make their journeys and layovers easier and less strenuous. However, the onus should not exclusively be on travellers to uphold security.

Accountability in WiFi Network Management

Those managing the WiFi network should allow for constant evaluation and review, to ensure stability and reliability. This should involve monitoring for rogue access points, isolating and segmenting networks for passengers and staff, enhancing encryption, and patching the infrastructure, to name just a few. Ultimately, airports – like any other organisation – need to maintain a degree of accountability and responsibility when it comes to WiFi network usage. The same applies to us at Corvera Airport Murcia; while we have been recognised by top worldwide airlines for our safety procedures, that doesn’t absolve us of the right to be digitally prepared and transparent.

There’s no doubting the risks that lie when using unsecured public WiFi networks, in an airport or any other setting. However, if the above precautions are taken, airport WiFi usage can be a stress-free and safe experience. A small amount of extra attentiveness and preparation can let you utilise any airport or public WiFi network with confidence, allowing you to go about your business free of interruption and worry.

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