The advent of in-flight wifi has brought with it huge opportunities for travellers to remain connected throughout a flight. But although it provides passengers with the ability to remain in constant communication while airborne, just how exposed users are remains an area of uncertainty.
Back in February, USA Today columnist Steven Petrow reported that he had his computer hacked while on a flight to North Carolina.
“There are a number of anecdotal accounts both online and shared among the privacy and security industry – for example, about spoofed wifi networks, often in instances when there are few connection options like an aeroplane,” says Marty P. Kamden, chief marketing officer for NordVPN.
The fact that users are in close proximity to one another for long periods of time can make the possibility for hacking more likely.
According to Aleks Gostev, chief security expert, global research and analysis team for international software security group Kaspersky Labs, the risks when using in-flight wifi are still somewhat marginal. “In-flight wifi is the same as public wifi. It may have some different configurations (depending on the wifi provider), but in general it’s almost the same as using wifi from a street café.”
That said, there are certain steps travellers can take to ensure their browsing remains confidential while using wifi at 30,000 feet.
Ensure anti-virus, firewall and anti-spyware software are installed
This precaution goes without saying and should be standard issue on all devices when accessing the internet. Ensure that your security software is updated regularly, particularly before you travel, as this will also help keep you secure while connecting to wifi at airports and hotels.
Avoid accessing sensitive information
This step is difficult if you’re looking to use the in-flight wifi in order to work, however if it is a short flight and the work can wait until you get to a more secure network, then perhaps it is sensible to do so. Emails, accessing sensitive documents and online transactions are the things to avoid if you are at all uncertain about the security of the network you are using. In such cases, stick to streaming videos and music.
Ensure the network is set to “Public” and not “Home” or “Work”
When users connect to a new network, they will often be prompted with the option of setting it to a Home, Work or Public network. The difference between them is that on a Home network, devices are visible to all other devices on the network, whereas on a Public one, devices are hidden from other users. This is valuable on a plane when connecting to a network with users you do not know and who may have devices connected to it that you don’t fully trust.
Be wary of false hotspots
There are a number of devices, such as WiFi Pineapple, that in the wrong hands can enable users to create fake wifi networks intended to lure unsuspecting users. According to Kamden, such devices “are easily accessible and typically small enough to be stored in someone’s carry on, pretending to be a wifi connection, so when a user connects to the ‘wifi’, they would actually be connecting to a hacking device.”
Kamden adds that there are devices and programmes that can identify false networks, however they can be difficult to run while on a plane, particularly for those who aren’t tech experts.
With airline passengers situated in close proximity for potentially long periods of time, such false networks can be particularly dangerous. Be cautious when connecting to networks that don’t have a password and if a wifi network looks at all dubious or resembles a duplicate, do not connect to it. Ask a member of the cabin crew to confirm the name and – if utilised – password for the genuine network.
Use a VPN
A virtual private network (VPN) is a technology that enables users to encrypt their data, so that in the event of it being intercepted it cannot be read. Much like general anti-virus and firewall security, VPNs are becoming all the more essential to safe and secure internet browsing. “Using a VPN is obligatory for all cases of using public wifi,” says Gostev.
A number of VPN providers are available, however using a VPN does mean that data is being sent to the provider, so ensure you select one that is reputable and transparent about handling your data. Using a professional VPN will often entail a cost, but the benefits are worth the expense.
That said, VPNs can cause an internet connection to be slower as data is directed through a third party. Depending on the strength of the on-board wifi, this may make browsing the internet during flight with a VPN prohibitive. It is also possible an airline’s own security measures won’t allow you to connect while using a VPN, so it is important to make sure other measures are also taken.
Don’t use the in-flight wifi
A rather extreme measure to protect your data, but a measure nonetheless. That said, Gostev says users shouldn’t be afraid of using wifi while on board a plane and that “they can do it by applying some basic security rules”.