Is hotel Wi-Fi safe?

Ruth C. | July 28, 2020

Free hotel Wi-Fi is an amenity that guests expect to have during their stays. Besides comfortable accommodations, locations, and sightseeing options, free Wi-Fi is a causal factor when browsing through booking offers. While extra charges for Wi-Fi displease visitors, the real deal-breaker should be the vulnerable networks that hotels do supply. Hospitality companies facilitate guests with free hotel Wi-Fi to increase their value and receive more reservations. However, their implementation is usually flimsy and insufficient in this era of sophisticated hackers. Before pressing that “connect” button to access hotel Wi-Fi, make sure you know the dangers that might await you.

The innate issues with free public Wi-Fi

Public Wi-Fi networks are one of the most vulnerable environments in the digital world. However, we have free wireless spots everywhere. You see the Wi-Fi password at the counter of your favorite coffee shop. You go to the city center: the government graciously supplies free internet to all residents and visitors. These free options to browse the web are welcome and appreciated by the general public. Sadly, a high percentage of free Wi-Fi hotspots do not correspond with the recommendations for secure networks.

Free hotel Wi-Fi is a must for guests. But what prevents a random bypasser from entering the lobby, connecting to the internet, and intercepting connections? Very little protection safeguards Wi-Fi hotspots, so they become the Wild West of the internet. No authentication is another tough-blow to the security of hotel Wi-Fi spots. For instance, home networks require users to provide correct credentials that are unique and, presumably, regularly updated. It is standard for free wireless networks to feature very simple passwords or none at all.

Hotel Wi-Fi is always on hackers’ radar

Guests at luxurious resorts are usually high-rank political figures or well-endowed entrepreneurs. The managers of Wi-Fi networks at such facilities should protect this exclusive pool of victims from vulnerable hotspots. For instance, hackers introducing themselves as DarkHotel have tainted the digital landscape for years. They targeted hotel Wi-Fi spots or, more specifically, important people that connected to them. By compromising vulnerable hotel Wi-Fi, crooks dropped malicious payloads onto users’ computers.

Russian spies also exploited the lacking resistance of hotel Wi-Fi. An espionage group targeted high-ranking officers from all over the world. The operation included spear-phishing emails sent to a variety of hotel guests. Then, since data via the Wi-Fi connection traveled unencrypted, spies attempted to steal it. While the extent of the attacks remains unknown, the public learned a valuable lesson on hotel Wi-Fi security.

Cybersecurity experts frequently test the reliability of Wi-Fi networks. However, while the hotel Wi-Fi might offer high-level protection, human error plays a role here. Users are willing to connect to any available Wi-Fi. According to researchers’ accounts, fake wireless networks are goldmines of data. One of the teachable moments came when a journalist named Jeff Rossen stayed at a hotel in Mexico. He set up an Evil Twin, imitating the official hotel network. Not too long after, a stream of users connected to the fake Wi-Fi, giving Rossen access to all their activities.

Hotel Wi-Fi: main attacks against it

From the real-life exploitations of vulnerable hotel Wi-Fi hotspots, we can map out the most common threats:

  • Mimicking the official hotel Wi-Fi. The fact that your data ended up on the dark web might not be the hotels’ fault. In some cases, hackers craft networks that resemble the official Wi-Fi hotspots. By making them public and free, crooks can mislead guests into connecting to them. Then, everything users do online reaches hackers.
  • Intercepting vulnerable wireless networks. Harvesting hotel Wi-Fi traffic is easier than you think. A tech-savvy cyberpunk with a laptop can passively listen in on traffic. In such cases, crooks use modified wireless network adapters or software-defined radios. Furthermore, publicly available tools can allow hackers to connect to hotel Wi-Fi and retrieve network packets.
  • Transmission of malware. After connecting to a hotel Wi-Fi, you might receive a pop-up message, urging you to install a software update. You gladly oblige. However, you unknowingly agree to download a malicious program. Hackers might distribute malware that spies on you, steals or makes files unusable. So, do not be eager to follow recommendations in the pop-up messages.

How to stay safe on hotel Wi-Fi?

  • Use cellular data instead of Wi-Fi. By refusing to connect to public Wi-Fi hotspots, you are immediately safer. However, this is not a realistic option for most users. If you use the wireless network at your home, you can forget to turn off the Wi-Fi setting. Then, your phone might connect to available networks automatically.
  • Turn on a firewall. It will filter content, require verification, and prevent unauthorized access to your devices and data.
  • Do not use a Wi-Fi connection for handling confidential information. Never make financial transactions via hotel Wi-Fi. In general, all affairs that you would like to keep private should wait until you can connect to a reliable network.
  • Communicate via private chats. When messaging your friends or loved ones during a trip, use end-to-end encryption. For instance, you can start conversations that will be much more difficult, if not impossible, to spy on.
  • Enable encryption for all web traffic. When preparing for your trip, consider a VPN. It provides top-of-the-line protection against unsecured or fake hotel Wi-Fi hotspots. Since wireless networks lack encryption, VPN tools apply advanced encryption protocols for all traffic. Also, many dedicated adventurers travel to heavily censored regions. Hence, they might be unable to connect to popular digital services, social media platforms, or other websites deemed unfit by the country you are visiting. A VPN lets you spoof your location and virtually return to the country you wish.

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