A study by RMIT University has found that around 2 million Australians are often risking data breaches by logging into internet banking and conducting other financial transactions on unsecured public Wi-Fi networks.
In compiling its report [PDF] Practicing safe public Wi-Fi: Assessing and managing data-security risks, RMIT surveyed 1,200 adult Australians, asking explicitly what they do on public Wi-Fi networks, as well as what they know about network security.
Of the 1,200 respondents, only 56 percent said they had used public Wi-Fi in the previous three months.
The report's lead author Dr Ian McShane, from the RMIT Centre for Urban Research, said that in the three months before the survey was undertaken, at least 10 million people logged on to public networks in Australia. However, the results from the university's study showed there is limited awareness of data security risks and the measures people could take to minimise such risk.
"Australia ranks sixth highest on an international scale of cyber attacks, which means we should be highly attentive to security issues," McShane said. "Yet we found that almost 2 million Australians were conducting financial transactions, and around 1 million were performing work-related tasks, including email and file sharing, on insecure networks."
According to the report, more than a quarter of respondents had conducted financial transactions such as internet banking and credit card and PayPal payments on public Wi-Fi networks in the previous three months.
60 percent of Wi-Fi using respondents recognised that public Wi-Fi networks were somewhat insecure, with the report noting that those who had conducted financial transactions on public Wi-Fi networks were more likely to perceive public networks as fairly or very secure.
"Almost half of the public Wi-Fi users who conducted financial transactions recognised the networks were insecure, but proceeded anyway, preferring convenience over security," the report said.
One in five public Wi-Fi users surveyed said they had logged into work services, including email and file-sharing systems, in the previous three months, with only one third using some form of online security protection.
"Unsecured networks are easy pickings for hackers and cyber criminals, but we found that even where users are familiar with security options, many choose to forgo them, preferring convenience over security," McShane added.
19 percent of survey respondents said they had chosen not to use some networks due to security concerns. More commonly, however, the report said concerns over privacy, log-in problems, and quality of service were cited as reasons for not accessing public Wi-Fi.
The report highlighted that public Wi-Fi was particularly significant for the young and the elderly, noting that approximately one in three younger people had access to less than 1GB of mobile data per month, hence their thirst for free Wi-Fi.
The report also offered up suggestions for making public Wi-Fi more secure, such as using a VPN or DNS proxy, as well as the option of ensuring that sites and services used operate under HTTPS or SSL protocols.
"By far the most important action that a consumer can take to enhance their security when using public Wi-Fi is to ensure that their device is correctly configured and has anti-virus, antimalware, anti-exploit, and anti-ransomware software installed," the report explained.
According to the report, the most used public Wi-Fi networks were provided by cafes and restaurants, with shopping centres and hotel/motel accommodation providers also frequently used. Networks in public spaces, such as parks or city squares, were also accessed in the previous three months by one-sixth of respondents, with the report stating that this was a similar rate of access to that of Telstra's Wi-Fi service Telstra Air.
Australia's largest free public Wi-Fi network has officially launched in Melbourne in September, under the AU$11 million Victoria Free Wi-Fi project.
The first access points were activated at all train stations within the Melbourne CBD, and at Bourke Street Mall, Queen Victoria Market, and South Wharf Promenade at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre, with the network managed by telecommunications provider TPG.
A pilot of the free Wi-Fi service has been operational across Ballarat and Bendigo since the end of last year, recording 1 million sessions within nine months.
iiNet reached an agreement with the Australian Capital Territory in May 2014 to roll out a AU$4 million Wi-Fi network across Canberra using more than 700 Cisco wireless access points.
Following suit, the Public Transport Authority of Western Australia in July last year began requesting tenders from internet service providers to supply free Wi-Fi on 1,430 buses, 56 three-car trains, 48 two-car trains, and two ferries in Perth.
Adelaide was the first Australian capital city to launch a free Wi-Fi network back in early 2014, after announcing it in November 2012, with iiNet providing coverage across the CBD with 200 Cisco access points. As of October 2014, there were already 90,000 unique users.