Wi-Fi Hotspots Expected to Grow 350% by 2015, and with it, Security Risks

The Wi-Fi world is set to grow by nearly 6 million hotspots by 2015, according to a recent study commissioned by the Wireless Broadband Alliance last Wednesday and compiled by research firm Informa. This explosion in Wi-Fi usage signals a new era in mobile computing and data backup systems, but to many cybersecurity consulting agencies, it’s a headache in new security threats.

The study, which included a comprehensive survey of 259 global Wi-Fi vendors and service providers, revealed that the mobile industry was the major contributor in the increase of Wi-Fi hotspots. Data usage from cellular devices and tablet PCs, it states, is at an all time high with mobile data traffic to reach 16.84 million terabytes by 2014.

To WBA Chairman Chris Bruce, this growth heralds in a new era of computing.”The findings show we are about to enter the golden age of public Wi-Fi, with hotspot deployments set to soar,” he said. “Fixed operators are extending broadband services beyond the home and office, and Wi-Fi is supporting busy mobile broadband networks.”

But to consulting firms like Errata Security, this explosion in data traffic is worrisome in an age where people are using their smart phones in public Wi-Fi locations to access sensitive data, such as bank accounts, credit card purchases, and personal emails.

Robert Graham, CEO of Errata Security says most public Wi-Fi service providers don’t require encryption of data that travels between a personal device and the Internet.

“If you’re using Wi-Fi in a public place and you’re not getting hacked, it’s only because there’s nobody around bothering to do it,” said Graham.

One of the biggest security concerns is “Wi-Fi eavesdropping,” the monitoring of one’s online activities. Anyone can eavesdrop; all they have to do is download a free Wi-Fi monitoring program, such as Firesheep or SniffPass.

“An eavesdropper can sit up to 100 feet away and monitor what you do on the Net,” says Rick Farina, security engineer for wireless security firm AirTight Networks.

In recent years, more websites and Wi-Fi service providers have been encrypting their data, making it more difficult for hackers to obtain personal information. But, Farina still estimates that 95% of data traffic on Wi-Fi servers is unencrypted. Social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Yahoo, for example, still do not use SSL encryption.

This leaves hackers open to deleting contacts, sensitive documents, apps, music and video files on millions of users’ personal devices.

Eric Geier, founder of consultant NoWiresSecurity, suggests on esecurityplanet.com that Wi-Fi hotspot users regularly back up their mobile device’s data and set a lock-screen or password in addition to checking the security-encryption features.

According to a Cisco study on the global workplace, there has also been an increase in the mobile workforce in recent years – more employees than ever are filing their reports and conducting their meetings in public hotspots via smart phone, laptop, or tablet PC. In fact, according to the study, three out of five workers say they don’t need to be in the office to be productive.

This means that more sensitive data is being stored and transferred on these vulnerable mobile devices, and could potentially cause serious security risks. Companies that insist on conducting business via smart phone or laptop are advised to back their data up immediately, or replicate to a data center where their files will be properly protected.

Eric Geier says telecommuters and people who use Wi-Fi hotspots for work need to be especially careful.  “The more you do on your mobile device, the more you should be concerned about its security,” he says.

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