WiFi Security for Travelers: Tips for Staying Safe

Morey Haber, November 21st, 2017

One of the advantages of my job is traveling around the world. One of the disadvantages of my job is not being home, sometimes for days at a time. I’m sure many of you can relate. My travels have taken me from Sydney to South Africa, and to many points in between. One of the things that always stands out to me in my travels is the differences in public WiFi. While we take Internet access for granted in many Western nations, it is heavily restricted in some countries (like China – still on my bucket list). Also, public access can be restricted in many countries through a variety of inconvenient and potentially intrusive and risky techniques. While traveling this holiday season (or anytime for that matter), consider the following techniques for public access I have seen around the world.

Airports

Airports are generally time-limited. You need to supply an email address (it can be fake by the way) and you are limited to around 30 minutes of access before you need to pay. If you decide to pay for more time, that fake email address will no longer work. You need to supply a valid email address and credit card to pay for the duration. Now, you are in a foreign city, and just entered your credit card via public WiFi. Need I say more?

Public Areas

I have seen access in public areas be completely wide open, with everything from no terms of agreement all the way through filling out a form or survey. One of the most intrusive mechanisms I have seen happened in South Africa. A public shopping mall required first name, last name, date of birth, and valid email address for access. Excuse me? Nothing like exposing Personally Identifiable Information on a public WiFi, with no SSL, and the email address must be confirmed within 5 minutes of signing on or you get shut out. I am not sure who manages that network but security red flags are everywhere. If you see these types of public WiFi, just say “no”.

Venues

My favorite type of public WiFi access is in venues like hotels or restaurants. They are relatively safe (and I use that term loosely) and do not require an email address or even money. They generally perform well and normally only require a quick click to accept their terms for access. The risk however is noteworthy. If you are using an unpatched device or allow anonymous connectivity, you are a high risk. Many of these locations do not have IP or AP isolation and act just like a local area network with the ability to see peer assets. For example, MacOS is notorious for allowing you to see peer assets just through Finder (Network), and tools on your phone like Fing even allow you to do NMAP style peer asset assessment and port scanning of local IP ranges.

Basic Security Standards Still Apply

My point is this: Even though you can access the Internet around the world, you still have to follow some very basic safe security standards for yourself and your mobile corporate assets. Consider the following recommendations:

  • Make sure your phone and mobile devices such as tablets and laptops are always fully patched. Public WiFi can be an easy attack vector for hackers and newer vulnerabilities like KRACK may become serious exploits in the future. This attack vector can be exploited on almost any OS and only the latest patches like iOS 11.1 for iPhone can mitigate the risk. This is one reason why you should always install the latest and greatest OS and patches available.
  • Sharing of directories, RDP, or Screen Sharing using local services on Windows or MacOS should be turned off when you travel. With cloud storage, there is no reason to allow inbound network connections on your device to share files or even allow command line access (FTP or SSH). There are too many exploits, brute force credential attacks, and denial of service attacks that can just wreak havoc on your device if you leave them on. Keep the services off and make sure your Firewall is set to block all inbound public access.
  • Never connect to any public WiFi that requires personally identifiable information. Never. If it requires an email address, consider using an email address you have designated for spam only. And never, allow the public WiFi to link to social media like Facebook, Twitter, or Google. That is just asking for trouble.

If you do decide to connect to public WiFi, never send any sensitive information via browser, or use apps or other methods to connect to sensitive sites like your bank account. While there is a level of security using SSL and encryption within certain applications, there is always a risk when the network connection is not yours, and you are on a public access point. If cellular is available, and your foreign country roaming plan allows access, that is always safer than public WiFi; even if the data speeds are slower.

For businesses that have worldwide travelers, consider talking to BeyondTrust. We have vulnerability assessment and configuration management agents that can help assure that employees mobile devices do not become a liability as they navigate the world.