Education 'key' to open Wi-Fi networks

2013-11-08 12:27
Smartphones. (Duncan Alfreds, News24)

Smartphones. (Duncan Alfreds, News24)

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Cape Town - South African cities are engaged in the process of rolling out public Wi-Fi hotpots in an effort to make high speed mobile data freely available.

The new service though, could be used by criminals to entrap users who are unused to the environment, warns a security consultant.

"While access for all is a commendable goal, there are security risks in extending free and low-cost Wi-Fi access in public places," Jonas Thulin a security consultant at Fortinet, told News24.

The cities of Tshwane and Cape Town are in the process of rolling our Wi-Fi access points for residents, and Thulin said that newbie users had be educated about the risks of an open network.

He also warned that such networks might pose a security risk.


"Frequently, the cost of the service is kept to a minimum by eliminating 'extras' - like effective security. In addition, many people who will now be using the internet for the first time as a result of the free access, may not have been informed about the risks of cybercrime, and so could be vulnerable to identity theft, fraud and abuse," Thulin said.

No so, countered Alan Knott-Craig jnr, head of Project Isizwe, the NGO engaged in building the Wi-Fi project for Tshwane.

"Free Wi-Fi is designed to provide access to the widest range of devices and users, which creates challenges with using the latest, most modern security protocols.

"That being said, just as when you make use of an ATM or speed point for the sake of convenience of not carrying cash at a restaurant, you make sure your credit card never leaves your sight and that no one is watching you enter your pin," Knott-Craig added.

He conceded that educating users was important, but added that administrators could build in additional warnings that the network was open.

"It's best to start with a warning or disclaimer on the landing page, informing people that they are on an open network, which has certain risks. This should include an obvious link to a webpage with information similar to the one contained here, designed to educate users and make sure they have the knowledge they need to protect their device and personal information."

Thulin went further, saying that security should be paramount in the design of an open network.

"Ideally, the entity rolling out a free Wi-Fi hotspots will ensure that the public network is as secure as possible, even going so far as to enforce safe search on the network, to protect children from inappropriate content."


Generally, users should not engage in financial transactions over open Wi-Fi networks nor download applications from websites that claim to offer free services, as these are invariably malware.

It is also wise to avoid entering personal information in online forms over an open Wi-Fi network as criminals could potentially harvest the information if it is not encrypted.

Thulin said without education strategies, users on open Wi-Fi networks would be prime targets for criminals.

"Building Wi-Fi hotspots without ensuring that the users are educated and the networks are as secure as possible would be rather like giving people cars without their needing drivers' licenses - sooner or later, somebody will get hurt."

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