“Open” Wi-Fi is available almost everywhere, and different cities have their own implementation strategies. While cities like Cape Town, South Africa have implemented a strategy where the city owns and manages WiFi points to the value of R10 million. Tshwane, South Africa on the other hand, has relied on their private sector partner, the NGO Project Isizwe for their roll out. And, the City of Johannesburg in January 2017 rolled out 1 000 WiFi hotspots in public areas.
Open Wi-Fi is generally defined as wireless networks that provide free, unencrypted access without the need to identify yourself, or for the Wi-Fi access point to identify itself (authentication). Providing open Wi-Fi is considered a value-added service or feature of many consumer-oriented businesses today. Combined with sometimes unacceptable cellular bandwidth or signal strength, and data plan limits, it is difficult to resist the lure of open, free Wi-Fi.
But in life, cause and effect is a reality virtually everyone acknowledges. The convenience of open Wi-Fi (cause) introduces security threats (effect), and places the responsibility of safely utilising these services on the end user (effect). The principal threat impacting users of open Wi-Fi is traffic sniffing, or eavesdropping, whereby an attacker “listens” in on wireless traffic that is not encrypted, potentially providing access to sensitive data. Probably the best public display of the consequences surrounding the use of unencrypted, open Wi-Fi is the “Wall of Sheep”, a staple at the DefCon security conference in Las Vegas for more than fifteen years.
The Wall of Sheep tracks people (sheep) at the conference that use open, unencrypted Wi-Fi to send email, login to websites, message their friends, etc. These sheeple (Riverside’s term, not ours) are publicly shamed by posting redacted login details for each of their infractions on the “wall of sheep”. In virtually every case, these conference attendees connected to either DefCon-Open, the purpose-built open Wi-Fi network hosted at DefCon for catching unsafe Internet users, or a researcher or attacker’s “rogue” open Wi-Fi. DefCon attendees can connect securely to the official, encrypted DefCon Wi-Fi network by downloading their certificate.
The above-mentioned dangers of using ‘Open Wi-Fi’ are fast becoming a reality in South Africa as well. The high cost of data often forces people to use these hotspots, most often, for job searches, banking and other essential activities which are also be data intensive. This highlights that there is a growing need to create awareness among South Africans that; security of personal information is at high-risk when using these hotspots.
Citrix has educated customers about wireless security since at least 2010. Today, customers have several options available to help secure end users’ Wi-Fi use when outside the office. One of the easiest and best-known solutions is utilising NetScaler Gateway, which provides network protection via Full VPN access to its users. In addition to encrypting traffic from the remote device to the NetScaler, access profiles can be configured to forward (proxy) traffic to a content filtering system or other security infrastructure for inspection.
After all, there is more to networking than HTTP and HTTPS (“HTTP/S”). In fact, some mobile applications don’t use HTTP/S at all. Organisations may never know all of the apps a user has installed unless a full device management solution is deployed, encrypting all traffic with Full VPN is a more sensible choice. And with NetScaler Gateway, organisations can keep track of these remote users effectively.
We do not live in a perfect world, and cyber-attacks are now more frequent than ever before. It is essential for people to know that getting access to open WiFi does make life easier, but it can soon turn into a problematic situation as well. It is imperative that people become aware of the dangers and protect themselves accordingly.
By Brendan McAravey, Country Manager at Citrix South Africa