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You're in Danger on Public Wifi!

wifi-publicIllustration by Kristina Collantes

If you ever connect to a public Wifi hotspot, you owe it to yourself to spend 4-5 minutes and read this article by Maurits Martijn called, “Maybe It’s Better If You Don’t Read This Story on Public WiFiWe took a hacker to a café and, in 20 minutes, he knew where everyone else was born, what schools they attended, and the last five things they googled.”

I want to make thousands of copies of that article and give them to every single person I see in every public Wifi location everywhere!

Let me say it as emphatically as I can if you’ve read this far: You are an idiot if you connect to any public Wifi without running a virtual private network (VPN) connection (like the one I use, Private Internet Access for $39.99/year for 5 devices). If you don’t it’s not “if” you will get hacked, but rather “when” it will happen to you.

To show you how pervasive and simple it is to hack your laptop, smartphone or tablet when you connect willy-nilly to some public Wifi hotspot, let me give you a glimpse at what I can only describes as a…

HACKER’S DREAM MACHINE
The Wifi Pineapple, a $99.99 black box

The Wifi Pineapple, a $99.99 black box
which makes it trivial for a hacker to steal you!

Because I’ve technically known the risks for nearly ten years, I’ve been paranoid about public Wifi locations since 2005 and wrote about being “naked in a coffee shop” here, here and here. But to show you how brain-dead-simple it has become to BE a hacker, wait until you read about a black box called the Wifi Pineapple you can buy, for $99.99, which lets anyone who has one:

  • Run a man-in-the-middle attack, essentially spoofing a public Wifi connection and even impersonating the actual, real network connection (whether open or secured). How many times have you connected to Wifi that said “Coffee Shop Guest” or “Free Public Wifi”? Sometimes they’re real, mostly they are not. You can almost never be certain.
  • The attacker can monitor all network traffic flowing between an Internet gateway and the connected clients (like your laptop, smartphone or tablet!) as well as manipulate this data in transit such as through captive portals, DNS spoofing, IP redirection and even the substitution of executables in transit (so that file you’re downloading might be coming off of the attacker’s laptop!).

There’s alot more you can do with this device and Hak5, the group that makes it, is certainly gleeful about all the rogue crap it can do:

“…the WiFi Pineapple is more than a platform – it’s a community for creativity. Rickrolling clients, powering off WiFi drones mid-flight, tracking commercial airliners and logging WiFi connections are only some of the creative things being done within the WiFi Pineapple community.”

On the Hak5 forums they even have a section entitled, “WiFi Pineapple University” to help users teach users about this ‘fun’ little box.

The good news? If you run a VPN and inadvertently connect to “Coffee Shop Guest” and it’s actually a spoofed connection through one of these black boxes, the hacker would only see encrypted traffic! Everyone else’s internet traffic—Facebook login, bank password, credit card data—would mostly be going in the clear. (Note: I know that an actual SSL connection would encrypt traffic in the browser, and so do most smartphone and tablet apps, but more sophisticated hackers can even spoof SSL connections so that your browser thinks it is securely connecting…but it is not).

I must admit that, even though I’m more appalled by the activities of our government and mass surveillance of U.S. citizens in what I believe is a direct violation of our Constitution, boxes like this one target individuals with a lot to lose. It’s not right and not fair and I hope I never catch someone using one in a public place or…

About Steve Borsch

I’m CEO of Marketing Directions, Inc., a trend forecasting, consulting and publishing firm in Minnesota. Prior to that I was Vice President, Strategic Alliances at Lawson Software in St. Paul where I was responsible for all partnerships at this major vendor of enterprise resource planning software products and services. Read more about me here unless you’re already weary of me telling you how incredible and awesome I am.

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