Is It Safe to Use an Open Wireless Network?

Be aware of security concerns and the need for permission

What Is Open Wi-Fi?

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If you need an internet connection and your wireless service is down, you may be tempted to connect to any open and unsecured wireless network that your wireless modem picks up. There are risks connected with using open Wi-Fi networks.

What Is Open Wi-Fi?

It's not safe to connect to an unknown open wireless network, particularly when transferring sensitive information, such as an online banking password. All information sent over an unsecured wireless network — one that doesn't require a WPA or WPA2 security code — is sent in plain sight for anyone to grab over the air. Connecting to an open network potentially opens a computer to someone else on that wireless network.

Risks of Using Unsecured Wi-Fi Networks

When logging in to a website or using an application that sends data in clear text over the network, the information can be easily captured by anyone motivated to steal another person's information. Email login information, for example, if not transferred securely, allows a hacker to access the email account and any confidential or personal information in the account without the owner's knowledge. Similarly, any IM or non-encrypted website traffic can be captured by a hacker.

If a computer doesn't have a firewall or if it's not configured correctly and file sharing is enabled on the device, a hacker can access the hard drive over the network to access confidential or sensitive data, or launch spam and virus attacks.

How Easy Is It to Hack a Wireless Network?

The tools needed to learn about a wireless network, capture (sniff) the data transmitted on it, crack the WEP security key, and decrypt and view data on network devices can be purchased for about $50.

Is It Legal to Use Someone Else's Open Wireless Network?

In addition to the security issues, using a wireless network someone else maintains and pays for may involve legal issues. In the past, several cases of unauthorized access to Wi-Fi computer networks have resulted in fines or felony charges.

Public Wi-F hotspots that are set up specifically for guests to use, such as at a coffee shop, are fine. However, pay attention to Wi-Fi hotspot security issues since Wi-Fi hotspots are typically open and unsecured wireless networks.

If you use your neighbor's Wi-Fi connection, ask them for permission before using it.