Wi-Fi Planet Guide to Hotspot Safety - Page 2

By Lisa Phifer

January 08, 2008

Step 3: Secure your hotspot login 

To avoid accidental associations with strangers, configure your Wi-Fi connection to connect only to Preferred Networks, in manual (not automatic) mode. This ensures that you retain complete control over your wireless connectivity when visiting hotspots (below).

fig3a.jpg

 

The only foolproof way to ensure that you connect to a legitimate hotspot AP is to verify the server’s certificate. In hotspots with WPA-Enterprise (e.g., T-Mobile, iBAHN), configure your laptop to validate the server’s certificate during 802.1x (below).

fig3b.jpg

 

In hotspots where 802.1x is not available, see if you can use a secure roaming client (e.g., iPass, Boingo) that transparently authenticates both you and the hotspot to an off-site roam server (below).

fig3c.jpg

 

Think twice about using unfamiliar paid hotspots that do not support either option. Man-in-the-middle attacks are very difficult to avoid there, since you don’t even know what the server's identity should be. If you decide that the risk is worth it, then avoid entering credit card numbers unless the hotspot login page is SSL-encrypted and the server’s certificate is valid and signed by a trusted root authority. If anything looks suspicious (as below), go somewhere else.

fig3d.jpg

 

Step 4: Encrypt your data

In hotspots that offer WPA-Enterprise (below), connect to the encrypted network’s SSID (e.g., tmobile1x, stsn_wpa), being careful to the open network (e.g., tmobile, stsn). With WPA, all packets sent by your laptop will be encrypted—including LAN broadcasts. However, when they reach the hotspot AP, packets will be decrypted and routed onto the Internet.

fig4a.jpg

Encrypt data with WPA.

 

In hotspots without WPA, use higher-layer encryption. If you don’t have your own VPN, you can use a consumer VPN service like JiWire Hotspot Helper, Witopia personalVPN, or HotspotVPN. For example, download and install AnchorFree, an OpenVPN client that tunnels your traffic to a free VPN gateway out on the Internet (below). These services decrypt packets at the provider's VPN gateway before relaying them to the destination in the clear.

fig4b.jpg

Encrypt data with a VPN.

To protect packets all the way to their destination, without your own VPN, use applications that can encrypt their own messages, like SSL-protected websites and mail clients (below). Doing so hides those messages from third parties, but leaves other applications exposed. For better coverage, protect everything with WPA or VPN, adding SSL for sensitive applications.

fig4c.jpg

Encrypt e-mail with SSL.

  

Step 5: Watch your step

Many hotspot connection managers, personal firewalls, and Internet security programs can log network activity. Use those logs to confirm or deny your suspicions whenever an incident occurs. If you spend a lot of time at unfamiliar hotspots, consider installing a host Wireless IPS program like Shmoo Group HSDK or AirDefense Personal (below). After all, what you can't see CAN hurt you—especially if you're careless.  fig5a.jpg

Like any traveler in unfamiliar territory, the single most important thing that you can do is to exercise caution and err on the side of safety. If a hotspot feels "phishy" don't stay connected. If your firewall warns you about suspicious activity, don't click "ok" and continue. By combining basic security measures with sound judgment, you can use hotspots safely.

Lisa Phifer owns Core Competence, a consulting firm focused on business use of emerging network and security technologies. She has been involved in the design, implementation, assessment, and testing of NetSec products and services for over 25 years.

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