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New Zealanders naïve about WiFi safety: Symantec

Two-out-of-three New Zealanders think their personal data is safe when they use public WiFi hotspots. Roughly the same number of kiwis use hotspots regardless of the consequences. Hardly any users know if they are transmitting data safely when using public WiFi.

These are key findings in Symantec’s 2017 WiFi Risk Survey.

WiFi is popular. Symantec found half of all New Zealanders ask for a WiFi password when at locations such as a friends house, hotel or café. Almost a third ask for that password within minutes of arriving.

In touch with WiFi reality?

Symantec territory manager Mark Gorrie says the attitudes are out of touch with reality. He says: “People often put their personal information at risk”. You don’t have to look far for examples. Gorrie says 84 per cent of people will use public WiFi to check their bank details online.

Gorrie says sites masquerading as legitimate hotspots often set up to lure users and collect private information. It’s not always known what they do with the information. Not every data collector has a criminal intent.

One of the strangest findings is that many users think they can tell if the apps they use are secure when transmitting data on WiFi. Gorrie points out that even security experts have no way of knowing this. You need sophisticated tools to monitor traffic to check this.

Virtual private networks

Symantec’s angle on this is that the company sells virtual private network software that can make WiFi more secure. I’ve been using it for the last year, including on a trip to China and I now have the latest version of Norton WiFi Privacy for testing at the moment. More about that later.

Gorrie says he recommends this for anyone who may use sensitive information over a WiFi connection. He says users who don’t want to go that far should just be more careful about the information they share on public hotspots. He says you should make sure you don’t set your devices to auto-connect when they find an unknown hotspot.

On the surface it is good advice. It is safer to use mobile internet on the cellular network when in risky places. It’s much harder for criminals to set up a fake cell tower than a fake WiFi hotspot. But there are few proven examples of people's data being stolen this way. Take care by all means, but don't become paranoid about WiFi.