Tips on Using Municipal WiFi

by Aeyne Schriber on March 16, 2012 in Wi-Fi

If you have never used municipal WiFi but you have noticed people out in public connecting to the Internet, chances are they are using a municipal WiFi connection to access the Internet.  A municipal WiFi connection is basically a wireless hotspot that is owned and operated by a municipality.  The WiFi hotspots are accessible by the public with both free and paid access depending upon the location and the purpose.

If you are accessing municipal WiFi in a public library or other similar venue chances are you will not pay a fee to connect to the Internet.  If the municipal WiFi is offered to a specific neighborhood or corporate complex then you may pay a fee to establish Internet connectivity.  In terms of public transportation venues such as airport terminals, public transit hubs, and downtown shopping areas, access to municipal WiFi may vary when it comes to free or paid access.

Although municipal WiFi is very convenient and allows you to connect with any device, there are risks associated with using this type of connection.  However, if you are aware of some of the ‘ins and outs’ of using municipal WiFi you can safely use this connection whenever you are in a public area.

An Overview of Municipal WiFi Security Hazards

When you access municipal WiFi it is important to have a fundamental understanding of how hackers operate when they exploit a public network.  Understanding some of the techniques they use enables you to take the necessary precautions to protect yourself and your identity while enjoying the convenience of municipal WiFi.

Municipal WiFi is Not Encrypted:  When you access municipal WiFi it is typically an open access network that does not provide any security for transmission of data.  Encryption is the process of password protecting all of your data.  When the data is transmitted over an Internet connection it is scrambled to avoid interception by hackers.  When it arrives at its destination the only way to unscramble the data so it is legible is to use an encryption key that contains your password.

Networks that provide encryption automatically offer this process when you communicate with others using a secure network.  Hackers are aware that in general, municipal WiFi is not secure which means any data that you send such as text or email messages, credit card numbers, or other personal information is openly visible to any hacker who can deploy simple tools for eavesdropping on you.

Access Point Impostors:  Most PCs and mobile devices automatically detect the nearest wireless access point.  This presents a playground of opportunity for hackers who are capable of creating an impostor access point.  The access point looks similar to the municipal WiFi hotspot only it uses crafty methods to entice you to choose the false access point.  Once you have connected to the false access point the hacker has open access to any computing tasks you conduct from there.

It is also important to note that with access point impostors hackers are capable of creating web pages that look like login pages you use to access your accounts.  Instead, when you login your username and password is forwarded to a remote server where it can be used to commit criminal acts.

Distance Exploits:  When it comes to municipal WiFi it is not necessary for the hacker to be in the general area to see who is connected to the network.  Since there is no firewall protection when you access the Internet hackers can see people who are active using simple tools to view the network from a remote location.  Once they see who is on the network they probe for vulnerabilities and when they find one, they launch an attack.

These are just a few risks you should be aware of when accessing municipal WiFi.  The privacy threats are many on a public network.  Since a municipal WiFi network is so vast and thousands of people are using the ID associated with it, implementing security applications and encryption measures proves to be a monumental task which can also be very costly.  So the only way to enjoy the benefits of a public network is to be proactive in protecting yourself while using municipal WiFi.  Here are few tips:

Obtain Network Identification

Before you logon make sure you know the identification name and number for the municipal WiFi network.  This will help to prevent you from encountering an access point impostor.  It does not provide 100 percent protection but it will make you aware enough to use caution before using a municipal WiFi access point.

Use a VPN or Proxy

If you have access to a VPN (Virtual Private Network) this can provide you with additional protection when accessing the Internet in a public venue.  If this is not possible there are proxy services you can use to hide your identity.  These services are offered online and allow you to use a different server other than the municipal WiFi network to access the Internet.

Encrypt Your Files

Although municipal WiFi may not offer encryption you can take the necessary steps to protect yourself by encrypting your own files on your PC or mobile device.  Many operating systems provide built-in encryption that you can activate or you can obtain encryption software to protect your files.

Use Comprehensive Security

Simply deploying an antivirus program will not provide you with the protection you need to safely navigate a municipal WiFi network.  Instead, make sure your device has comprehensive security protection installed such as a firewall, anti-malware, email scanning, and other protection elements that are included with a complete security program.

Block Cookies

Municipal WiFi providers sometimes generate an extra stream of income by tracking your activity while you surf the Internet.  They accomplish this by inserting tracking cookies on your PC among other methods.  Your location, where you do business, and other information is gathered and sent back to advertisers in exchange for a specified amount of money.  The advertisers then bombard you with ads that are relevant to your location as well as the places where you shop or do business.

We are not saying that it is a bad practice to use municipal WiFi however, it is important to take proactive steps to protect your privacy for the reasons described in this article.

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