THE BLOG
18/11/2013 09:43 GMT | Updated 23/01/2014 18:56 GMT

What If the Man in the Café Is Also a 'Man-in-the-middle'?

For many of us, it has become second nature to access any available wi-fi hotspot when on the move. We are spoilt for choice, with almost every train station, café and restaurant offering wi-fi to satisfy our appetite for connectivity. With everyone carrying around devices that access the Internet, these hotspots provide the perfect incentive to log on while on the go. However, when surrounded by others in the comfortable environment of your favourite coffee shop, the eagerness to check in with friends on Facebook, purchase that great new track you just heard on the radio or even send a last minute work e-mail often overpowers the sense of caution.

Think about it. You never know what the guy with the laptop at the next table might be doing. Maybe, like you, he's checking his email, updating his Facebook page or chatting with friends. But maybe he's sniffing the Internet traffic of everyone around him - including yours.

Even just casually browsing in a cafe or restaurant could put you under threat. If someone is able to capture your login details, or other sensitive information, they have the key to unlock your digital lives.

And it doesn't have to be the guy at the next table. A typical wi-fi router has a range of around 100 metres. So it could just as easily be someone sitting in the cafe over the road, or in the nearby car park.

Sniffing network traffic is one thing. But what if the wi-fi network you're connecting to doesn't belong to the coffee shop, restaurant, hotel or airport lounge? What if it's masquerading as the real one to trick potential victims into connecting to it? This method, known as a 'man-in-the-middle' attack, can be used to capture any confidential data you type-in, get access to what's on your device, install malware on the device or even use your device to distribute spam messages on their behalf.

According to a recent Kaspersky Lab survey, 34 per cent of people using a PC admitted to taking no special measures to protect their online activity when using a wi-fi hotspot, while only a mere 13 per cent take the time to actively check the encryption standard of any access point before they use it.

Earlier in the year, I discussed the fact that online safety is a shared responsibility between government, businesses, security vendors and us as individuals. Although as consumers we have a right to expect the hotspot provider to offer secure systems, we do bear a responsibility to be aware of any potential threats to our personal information, and proactively combat any dangers.

What is encouraging from our survey is the fact only 14 per cent were comfortable banking or shopping online when connected to an untrusted wi-fi hotspot.

Taking charge yourself greatly reduces the 'window of opportunity' for cybercriminals to profit from any lax Internet security. It may seem obvious, but if we all follow these simple steps, we can greatly reduce the risk of attack:

1. Use only trusted and secure wi-fi networks if you're going to do anything confidential, i.e. anything that involves typing a username and password, or transmitting confidential data.

2. Make sure, before you login to any web site, that it's secure - look for 'https', the unbroken padlock symbol and check the security certificate.

3. Secure your computer with a reputable Internet security product.

4. Protect all your devices, including laptops, tablets, and smartphones, not just your PC.