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​Lust for public Wi-Fi trumps security concerns

Given a choice between security and free Wi-Fi, almost all of us will use the free internet connection.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

When it comes to security, we are so, so stupid. So before you laugh at Trump's use of hopelessly insecure mail servers, consider that 89 percent of surveyed business users use public Wi-Fi sites.

Maslow pyramid of needs WiFi

Safety or Wi-Fi? The vast majority of us will take Wi-Fi every time.

Xirrus, a leading enterprise Wi-Fi networks company, polled more than 2,000 business users, including executives and IT professionals. They found that while 91 percent of respondents do not believe public Wi-Fi is secure -- believe it or not -- 89 percent use it anyway.

Did I mention that we're really dumb?

We expect public Wi-Fi wherever we go. From coffee shops to hotels to airports to planes to the dressing rooms of clothing stores we not only want Wi-Fi, we demand it. At the same time, few public networks protect users' data when they connect. At most they use WPA2-Personal encryption. Guess what? Practically speaking, WPA-2 Personal has been crackable for over seven years. Besides, since public networks typically use the same password for everyone, your local Wi-Fi traffic is wide open to snoopers.

In short, while these networks offer convenience, they rarely encrypt data, leaving passwords exposed and sensitive data vulnerable to hackers.

How bad is it really? Really, really bad. Xirrus found:

  • 48 percent of Wi-Fi users connect to public Wi-Fi at least three times per week; 31 percent connect to public Wi-Fi every day.
  • 91 percent of Wi-Fi users do not believe public Wi-Fi is secure, yet 89 percent use it anyway.
  • When on public Wi-Fi, 83 percent of Wi-Fi users access their email, whether it's for work or personal reasons, and 43 percent access work/job-specific information.
  • Nearly half (46 percent) of Wi-Fi users say their company has not offered cybersecurity training in the past year.
  • Nearly 30 percent of respondents are not aware of ransomware as a threat, despite it being identified as one of the most pervasive cyber threats.

"Today, the convenience of using public Wi-Fi, for a variety of work and recreational uses, supersedes security, which puts both individuals and businesses at risk," said Shane Buckley, Xirrus CEO, in a statement. "Most businesses do not offer secure connectivity options for customers and guests. And what makes connecting to public Wi-Fi even more risky is that employers rarely provide proper education around these security risks, or provide tools to keep their employee and company data safe."

Some of this is our fault. Indeed, Xirrus found 85 percent of Wi-Fi users would blame themselves if they get hacked.

At the same time, their employers don't help as much as they should. Only 47 percent of those surveyed said their employers encourage them to use a virtual private network (VPN) when traveling for business. 26 percent said their employers don't recommend any security measures when traveling.

So yes, we shouldn't use public Wi-Fi as if they were safe and secure. But, as Morgan Wright, cybersecurity expert and senior fellow at The Center for Digital Government, observed, "Businesses not only have a corporate responsibility to educate their users of the risks associated with connecting to public Wi-Fi, but also to give them the necessary tools to avoid attacks."

For more on Xirrus's finding you can download a free copy of the Rolling the Dice with public Wi-Fi survey report. In the meantime, if you're going to use public Wi-Fi -- and odds are you will -- keep in mind that someone may be watching your every online move and act accordingly.

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