Free Wi-Fi: Unsafe At Any Speed?

Written by Frank Hayes
March 2nd, 2011

How dangerous is free Wi-Fi? Dangerous enough, says U.S. Senator Charles Schumer, who on Monday (Feb. 28) called on, Twitter, Yahoo and other major Web sites to tighten up their security. He wants users to be safe from the threat of network-based identity theft while visiting those sites using the free Wi-Fi at coffee houses and bookstores.

Schumer’s effort is to push HTTPS for a much higher percentage of sites. HTTP Secure is the easiest way to block most attacks that come via public Wi-Fi. It’s not perfect, but it’s largely effective. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. For one thing, HTTPS isn’t cheap. Encrypting every session for every Web surfer chews up more processor power and fills more bandwidth than plain-vanilla Web connections. Just setting up the coding is non-trivial, and complexities like content from multiple sources make it even more complicated. Good luck getting to convert its entire E-tail operation to HTTPS before the noise from Schumer’s news conference has faded to silence.

What’s worse, HTTPS doesn’t attack the problem at its source, which is free Wi-Fi that’s offered through access points that are subject to address resolution protocol (ARP) poisoning. Those bookstores, coffee houses and other retailers that use cheap access points are trying to keep costs down—after all, they’re offering Wi-Fi for free. But spending a little more on equipment that’s better at blocking ARP poisoning might be less expensive that upgrading every major Web site, and it would improve security for all sites and surfers.

Or perhaps a better place to make a push is in Web browsers and protocols. Right now, HTTPS produces a tiny padlock on most browsers. Want to raise awareness of secure Web browsing among consumers, senator? Why not start pushing browser makers to make that padlock much bigger—and give unsecured sites a nasty, threatening border to warn users that they’re potentially at risk?

Then again, instead of fear mongering and finger pointing, maybe a better approach is for everyone simply to recognize that the world has changed. Wi-Fi is everywhere now, and it’s not getting any safer. How about HTTPS and more secure access points and browsers that warn users when they’re using creaky old HTTP?

And for grandstanding politicians? Maybe a short course in clear thinking. Schumer’s own Web site has a form that requires a constituent’s name, address and phone number to send him an e-mail—and there’s not an HTTPS padlock in sight.


Comments are closed.


StorefrontBacktalk delivers the latest retail technology news & analysis. Join more than 60,000 retail IT leaders who subscribe to our free weekly email. Sign up today!

Most Recent Comments

Why Did Gonzales Hackers Like European Cards So Much Better?

I am still unclear about the core point here-- why higher value of European cards. Supply and demand, yes, makes sense. But the fact that the cards were chip and pin (EMV) should make them less valuable because that demonstrably reduces the ability to use them fraudulently. Did the author mean that the chip and pin cards could be used in a country where EMV is not implemented--the US--and this mis-match make it easier to us them since the issuing banks may not have as robust anti-fraud controls as non-EMV banks because they assumed EMV would do the fraud prevention for them Read more...
Two possible reasons that I can think of and have seen in the past - 1) Cards issued by European banks when used online cross border don't usually support AVS checks. So, when a European card is used with a billing address that's in the US, an ecom merchant wouldn't necessarily know that the shipping zip code doesn't match the billing code. 2) Also, in offline chip countries the card determines whether or not a transaction is approved, not the issuer. In my experience, European issuers haven't developed the same checks on authorization requests as US issuers. So, these cards might be more valuable because they are more likely to get approved. Read more...
A smart card slot in terminals doesn't mean there is a reader or that the reader is activated. Then, activated reader or not, the U.S. processors don't have apps certified or ready to load into those terminals to accept and process smart card transactions just yet. Don't get your card(t) before the terminal (horse). Read more...
The marketplace does speak. More fraud capacity translates to higher value for the stolen data. Because nearly 100% of all US transactions are authorized online in real time, we have less fraud regardless of whether the card is Magstripe only or chip and PIn. Hence, $10 prices for US cards vs $25 for the European counterparts. Read more...
@David True. The European cards have both an EMV chip AND a mag stripe. Europeans may generally use the chip for their transactions, but the insecure stripe remains vulnerable to skimming, whether it be from a false front on an ATM or a dishonest waiter with a handheld skimmer. If their stripe is skimmed, the track data can still be cloned and used fraudulently in the United States. If European banks only detect fraud from 9-5 GMT, that might explain why American criminals prefer them over American bank issued cards, who have fraud detection in place 24x7. Read more...

Our apologies. Due to legal and security copyright issues, we can't facilitate the printing of Premium Content. If you absolutely need a hard copy, please contact customer service.