That Wifi May Be Free, but Don’t Pay for It With Poor Security…

“Would you pick up a half bottle of beer left on the pavement and drink it?”

This question was put by Rob Cotton, CEO of NCC Group , to a BBC Radio4 presenter when he was discussing the risks of using free wifi hotspots in cafes, etc. Perhaps the image was a bit extreme, but it caught my attention, as intended. He was drawing a picture of the not so pristine world of unsecured free wifi hotspots, and the lure of joining the Cloud wherever you find yourself. The premise is that you should think about what you search, or transact, on your mobile devices when in public places, so, for example, beware if you make online purchases or access bank accounts, even if they are said to be encrypted.

This is a security concern that was pretty low on my radar. I happily sign into free wifi whenever I can – the train to London, at airports, in hotels, and occasionally in cafes. In fact, I was on Singapore Airlines last week, where I could have purchased wifi access whilst 40,000 feet in the air had I so desired! So there is an outside chance that someone could be scamming the service to somehow lift passwords and logins for nefarious purposes. A follow up item with cyber security expert Pete Sommer pointed out that such interception, although not common, can take place, and the main message is not to be blasé about security wherever you are.

Later on I read an article about the ability of researchers to retrieve deleted data from frozen Android phones , working to actively undo the encryption that Google introduced to scramble user data for greater security. So if researchers can do that, the hackers will be there as well.

It seems that for every effort that is made to make us feel more secure in our use of brilliant new technology, a counter effort is made to expose, undermine or break it. What a lot of brain power is being expended which could perhaps be put to better use, like alleviating world hunger, poverty, disease.

With so many of us using mobile technology as our primary source of information, entertainment and communication, security concerns should be primary, and I sometimes forget about this. I think my desktop antivirus software cover is enough, but it doesn’t extend to my iOS mobile devices – so what to do about it?

A bit of research showed that you can download apps which will create a VPN to encrypt your data. I read around the topic, and found 2 reviews (here and here )of one which seems to be quite reputable, Hotspotshield . It is free (with adverts), or you can pay by month for a premium advert free version, but I opted for annual subscription, which can be used on up to 5 devices, so it will protect our 2 family iPhones and the iPad. I am not sure whether I am being a bit paranoid, but as more and more of my life is spent ‘connected’, and because I travel so much, this will help me feel a little more secure whenever I log in to the network on offer.

PS: For the Google watchers among us – a great programme on the BBC recently is now on You Tube. Google and the Big Brain talks about Google’s efforts to digitise the world’s books. We were part of the whole project at Oxford, and the Law Library had a fair number of items (close on 5,000 books) digitised, which are now all available in full pdf (not yet OCR’d) for the world to access. There is a lot of detail about the project on the website including how to access the titles.


  1. An article today reinforcing the threats..