Wi-Fi Hotspots Turn Up Cybersecurity Heat

Study predicts exponential growth in public hotspots as information assurance professionals sweat the security risks.

A new report by the Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA) sees public Wi-Fi hotspot deployment growing by more than 350% by 2015, bringing the total number of publicly accessible high-speed Internet connection points to more than six million around the world. The WBA identifies two major drivers of this incredible growth trend: an effort by cellular network operators to offload some of their customers’ data usage and the emerging popularity of location-independent workers who must access the Internet outside of a traditional home or office.

However, the vast majority of current public Wi-Fi hotspots do very little to ensure the security of data flowing across the network, prompting cybersecurity experts to raise concerns about the safety of consumers and professionals as mobile hotspots become an increasingly critical source of Internet access. Most hotspot providers don’t require any type of data encryption between the hotspot and its connected devices, making information shared between the two easily viewable to anyone with common downloadable Wi-Fi monitoring applications. The onus for cybersecurity currently rests with individual Web sites to use an encryption protocol like SSL to secure all data as it moves from the user’s device to the site’s servers. Nearly all of the most popular social networking sites (Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo, etc.) still don’t use SSL encryption, though.

It’s a serious cybersecurity concern right now, and it will only get worse as the WBA predicts the volume of data transmitted over cellular networks and public Wi-Fi to reach a staggering 16.84 million terabytes per year by 2014. The nature of that data is also becoming more sensitive by the day. Internet users are increasingly engaging in shopping, banking, corporate data exchange and other high security activities while on the go.

The cybersecurity picture is further complicated by the many different types of devices used to transmit that sensitive data. Worldwide, laptop computers no longer make up the majority of devices currently accessing public Wi-Fi hotspots. Only 48% of devices accessing Wi-Fi hotspots in the last year were laptops, according to the WBA. Smartphones accounted for 36% of the devices, tablet computers made up another 10% and the remaining 6% included all other Wi-Fi-enabled devices, such as portable video game systems. In both the North American and the Asia Pacific regions, smartphones themselves actually outnumbered laptops on publicly accessible Wi-Fi hotspots last year. The shift toward mobile devices will only continue as smartphone and tablet market penetration continues to grow.

To compile its data and project future public Wi-Fi deployment, the WBA surveyed 259 global Wi-Fi vendors and service providers. The WBA itself is a consortium of wireless networking providers serving more than 390 million customers worldwide. WBA membership includes seven of the top ten mobile operator groups, and WBA members currently administer 290,000 Wi-Fi hotspots around the globe.

Source: “Global Developments in Public Wi-Fi, WBA Industry Report, 2011