Oh, the Risks of Public Wi-Fi
As technology goes more and more mobile, working remotely from public Wi-Fi locations is going to be a bigger and bigger part of doing business. Whether it’s your sales team using airport Wi-Fi while waiting for a flight, or your creative employees knocking out some work at a Starbucks over lunch, the risks of public Wi-Fi are going to have to become a consideration for companies. Unfortunately, most employees (and many employers) don’t know just how dangerous using public Wi-Fi networks can actually be.
Whenever you connect to a public Wi-Fi network, any information you send or receive can be easily snatched from the air and inspected. In fact, this very issue was highlighted just a short while ago when a plugin called Firesheep made it trivial for anyone on a public Wi-Fi network to hijack the social network and other accounts of people sharing that network. While the major social networks quickly fixed the vulnerabilities that allowed this behavior, not all sites did. This is not to mention any capabilities the Federal Government (read: NSA) has to do this.
To Allow or Not to Allow?
Protecting your business data from being exposed on public networks is critical, and should not be taken lightly. The simplest and most secure way to prevent proprietary data from leaking into public access is to simply not use public Wi-Fi spots for any kind of official business. In fact, for the most security, it might be a good idea to not connect any company mobile devices to any public Wi-Fi networks at all.
Another solution is to use a 4G internet dongle. These devices plug in to your laptop and function as cellular modems to connect you to the internet the same way that your cell phone connects. This not only lets you bypass the dangers of public Wi-Fi, but also allows your employees to work online from anywhere where they can get a cell signal. The downside is that if there is no cell reception, there is no internet, and poor cell reception could lead to the connection being agonizingly slow. It’s also fairly pricey, with many providers charging large fees for very limited data. One alternative here is to tether an existing 4G phone that already has a data plan.
The last solution is to use a VPN, or virtual private network, to tunnel through the public Wi-Fi access and do all business-related work under full encryption. A VPN, in this case, involves creating a secure connection within the unsecured public connection, and connecting directly to a work server which you then use to access the broader internet. This keeps the data you send secure between your laptop and the final destination. VPNs are relatively easy and inexpensive to install and deploy.
Hybrid solutions are out there as well. We have deployed software for organizations that enables employee computers to access public WiFi but only in conjunction with a VPN, so users can enjoy the convenience but reduce their risk.