Wi-Fi at Public Beaches: Another Way to People-Watch?

chicagobeachEveryone knows that beaches are great places to watch and be watched. Thanks to a new initiative that is bringing free Wi-Fi to some Chicago beaches, summer’s spectator sport may take up an entirely different court.

As reported in Crain’s Chicago Business on July 19, Everywhere Wireless LLC is building Wi-Fi networks using donated Cisco equipment at five Chicago beaches. Visitors will be able to connect to the Wi-Fi signal free of charge to access their email, update their social networks, and perhaps even upload a picture of that babe tanning next to them, all without cutting into their mobile data plan.

I usually find free public Wi-Fi a welcome surprise, particularly when I’m on the road and need to work on my computer or ipad that lacks 3G or 4G service. I also try not to stay at hotels that charge for Wi-Fi, because, well, paying for in-room Wi-Fi is so 2006. However, public Wi-Fi must be used with caution.

Data on an open Wi-Fi network isn’t encrypted. So, when you’re surfing the web at a coffee shop or sending email at an airport, the wireless network isn’t doing anything to hide what you’re sending. What’s the risk? Well, some curious person running a packet sniffing tool such as Wireshark could collect all the data you’re sending over the air. If the kind of data you’re sending isn’t encrypted to begin with (for example, you’re not connected to a secure website, or you’re not using a virtual private network, or VPN, to connect to your email), then the creepy coffee shop hacker can read your communication effortlessly. That’s probably not what you want.

It’s simple to guard against this by using a VPN such as Avast SecureLine, Hamachi, and WiTopia, all of which are easy to install on a variety of platforms and will build a protective shell around your communications that the snoop can’t break. Unfortunately, not too many people know about tools like this, or even why they should use them.

It looks like the coffee shop hacker can start working on his tan now. Somebody should steal his sunscreen.

About Ray Klump

Professor and chair of Mathematics and Computer Science Director, Master of Science in Information Security Lewis University http://online.lewisu.edu/ms-information-security.asp, http://online.lewisu.edu/resource/engineering-technology/articles.asp, http://cs.lewisu.edu. You can find him on Google+.

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