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Public Wi-Fi: The obvious yet forgettable threat against your corporate network

We need to look at something we all use and because it is convenient we are quick to forget its security risks, which is Wi-Fi. As more employees get business done remotely, IT leaders are challenged with keeping remote connections secure.

For obvious reasons, Wi-Fi has become a necessity in today’s digital age and like everything, everyone loves it even more when it is free. However, free comes at a price – no security and anyone who wants to access your computer to see anything, can. This seemingly unknown threat comes in the form of Wi-Fi at hotels, cafés – you name it. Yet logging onto a free hotspot has huge security implications for both the user and the business they work for.

A recent Forrester study (opens in new tab) indicated that 37 per cent of office employees are regularly working remotely for two or more days a week. Flexible working hours have put demands on employees to stay connected to corporate systems for as long as possible – even 24/7. Yet, these inviting and convenient free hotspots are plagued with vulnerabilities, leaving huge security implications for both the employees who use them and the companies in which they work.

The belief that employees aren’t capable of being trusted to remain secure at work is outdated and the days of scribbling passwords on post-it notes are long gone. With that, there is still a need to educate employees when it comes to public Wi-Fi, which remains one of many cyber threats to corporate systems and information today. Most employees are aware of the dangers of bad password management and endpoint security even on a subconscious level, as they are used to dealing with their personal banking and shopping. Problems arise when they simply forget to take security into consideration when working and accessing company systems remotely or if they are not provided with an appropriate security method. By logging onto free Wi-Fi networks – often mindlessly – employees are making information susceptible to yet another form of attack.

Public Wi-Fi networks by nature are a hotbed for silent cyber-attacks, as a business’ sophisticated security system often won’t have any effect on protecting users. Some may even say that breaching a system is child’s play, following reports of a seven-year-old successfully hacking in less than 11 minutes (opens in new tab). Hotspots are more often than not, unencrypted, so information is openly available and without warning can be collected by hackers. By simply entering an email address – and some hotspots don’t even ask for any user information to log on – millions of people can access the same networks. This giveaway of such a personal piece of information to a network that is so easy to access is terrifying and users need to consider who is collecting their data before handing it over.

Free hotspots are easy to set up and even easier to replicate. One popular method of stealing information is to clone a network. For example, a popular coffee shop will offer its customers free Wi-Fi but without needing a password to access it. A hacker will take advantage of this by using the same network name to clone it, therefore, leaving the customer unaware of which one is genuine. This approach carries two benefits for the hacker as they have control of the clone network, with full access to information being shared on it and avoid the criminal implications of breaching an existing network.

Cellular networks or VPNs are recommended as safer methods to access business applications and documents, but they also still carry major security risks that could lead to valuable information being stolen. The solution is a security system built on a zero-knowledge foundation – such as tokenless two-factor authentication (2FA).

The emergence of 2FA has allowed businesses to empower their staff when it comes to corporate security and provides an extra layer of protection. It requires not only a username and password, but also something that only the user has on them (i.e. a physical token) to generate a one-time passcode (OTP). With cybercrime across the globe increasing, such methods of authentication have become increasingly prevalent.

While physical 2FA tokens can be easy to lose and expensive for companies to distribute and maintain, tokenless 2FA solutions on the other hand just need an existing device, such as a phone or tablet, to provide employees with passcodes via e-mail, SMS or an app. In other words, employees do not need to worry about carrying around an additional physical token, instead, they can make use of the devices they already have on them.

This is not just a convenience issue, this is a security one too. Two-factor authentication doesn’t guarantee a bullet-proof solution as any manufacturer that creates cryptographic keys (also known as seed records) must trust that their copy of the keys can’t be accessed by hackers. This is why a zero-knowledge foundation is important, as it makes it impossible for malware on a smartphone to capture the seed records because they are split into two parts: one created on the client server and one generated using characteristics of the mobile device.

The vulnerability of public Wi-Fi is a signal that businesses need to give their employees a single method of authentication to mitigate security risks when needing to log onto their corporate systems and web-based business applications. Asking employees to login with a variety of passwords, codes and tokens has swiftly become archaic as technology has allowed businesses to adopt much more streamlined and secure solutions.

Albert Einstein once said, “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” While connected to a welcoming but insecure public hotspot, even the smallest leak of an email address could lead to cybercriminals learning about a user’s entire digital footprint. From a user perspective, it is easy to become complacent and believe a single password is strong enough to protect corporate systems and data from all cyber threats.

The truth is that there is a much bigger picture to consider, and a secure solution – such as 2FA – needs to be adopted to ensure hundreds of other cyber threats, as well as vulnerable Wi-Fi, are nullified.

With the steep growth of remote access of corporate networks, using public Wi-Fi with 2FA means that employees and the networks and applications they access are more protected against possible cybercrime.

Steve Watts is co-founder and sales director of SecurEnvoy (opens in new tab)

Image Credit: Sidarta / Shutterstock