Is Your Data Secure on Airport Wi-Fi? Not Always
While most people expect delays or minor scheduling headaches when flying, they don’t expect to be hacked online or have their identities stolen.
But at any given moment, tens of thousands of passengers use airport Wi-Fi to access flight information, emails, and more. This makes airports a tempting target for sophisticated cybercriminals looking to intercept sensitive information, including credit card details and account passwords.
Unfortunately, researchers estimate that [*]:
One out of every four travelers has been hacked over public Wi-Fi networks while abroad.
Many of these attacks happen at major airports, especially busy ones like the Harry Reid International Airport in Las Vegas – ranked the least secure airport in the United States [*]. However, hacks can occur anywhere you’re using an unsecured Wi-Fi network.
Does this mean that you shouldn’t use Wi-Fi while traveling? Not exactly.
In this guide, we’ll explain the risks and dangers of using airport Wi-Fi, how to stay safe online while traveling, and what to do if you think you’ve been hacked.
What Are the Risks of Using Airport Wi-Fi?
Although airports are well equipped to handle the physical security of travelers, the same can’t be said for their digital safety.
Instead, airport Wi-Fi trades convenience for security. Hackers have found many ways to exploit the vulnerabilities of networks designed to provide easy access to travelers.
Here are a few of the biggest risks when using airport Wi-Fi:
- Identity theft and account takeovers. Hackers can spy on you and intercept data you send over a compromised network. This means any information that you enter — such as passwords or even your Social Security number (SSN) could be used to steal your identity or break into your online accounts.
- Financial losses from stolen bank or credit card information. Unsecured Wi-Fi may allow cybercriminals to steal your financial information as well — such as bank account numbers or credit card data.
- Business email compromise (BEC). Cybercriminals often target business travelers and try to access their email accounts to conduct fraud.
- Phishing attacks using spoofed websites. Attackers may inject phishing sites, fake websites, or fraudulent login pages to trick you into giving up personal data.
- Malware infections from compromised downloads. You may be asked to download illegitimate apps or files in order to access airport Wi-Fi. But these fake downloads hide malware that gives hackers access to your data and devices. One type of especially malicious virus — called keyloggers — secretly sends all your keystrokes (including passwords) directly to scammers.
Here’s How Hackers Hack Airport Wi-Fi
Any unsecured Wi-Fi network can become a target for hackers. But few people know how to spot the common ways that bad actors hack airport Wi-Fi networks. These hacking methods include:
- Look-alike Wi-Fi Networks. Hackers can create “evil twin” Wi-Fi networks with names that look similar to the airport’s legitimate free network. If you connect to these networks, scammers can intercept any unencrypted data sent over the network, including login credentials.
- Fake login pages. Many airports require users to register before using Wi-Fi. Cybercriminals may set up fake login pages that demand personal data, or even credit card information, from travelers.
- Man-in-the-middle (MITM) attacks. Attackers can insert themselves between users and unsecured public Wi-Fi networks, intercepting data in transit. If the airport does not have adequate security, its Wi-Fi network may be compromised.
- Fraudulent Wi-Fi hotspots. This tactic relies on devices that automatically connect to public Wi-Fi hotspots. Your smartphone won’t know it’s made an unsecured connection and exposed your data.
- Malicious pop-ups. Attackers may insert pop-ups into legitimate airport web pages and services. If you click on them, you’ll either download malware onto your device or enter a fake website that steals your personal information.
- Packet sniffing attacks. In some cases, hackers don’t need to hack you specifically, but instead steal “packets” of data over unsecured Wi-Fi networks. Then, they use custom software to pull out individual pieces of data — including passwords and credit card information.
The bottom line: Any unsecured or public Wi-Fi network poses serious risks to your identity and financial accounts. Always make sure you protect yourself with a VPN, antivirus, and strong digital security before entering sensitive information over public Wi-Fi networks.
10 Ways To Stay Safe When Using Airport Wi-Fi
- Use a virtual private network (VPN) to encrypt your data
- Confirm the name of the Wi-Fi network with airport staff
- Don’t automatically join new Wi-Fi networks
- Install antivirus software and make sure it’s running
- Avoid entering personal and sensitive data while traveling
- Use a password manager to protect your credentials
- Turn off Bluetooth as well as file and printer sharing
- Use Safe Browsing tools to warn you about dangerous websites
- Don’t log in to public networks using real information
- When in doubt, use a mobile hotspot instead of Airport Wi-Fi
Staying safe while on airport Wi-Fi requires a few specific tools and some specialized knowledge. Here’s what you need to know:
1. Use a virtual private network (VPN) to encrypt your data
VPN technology encrypts the data you send over Wi-Fi. That makes it nearly impossible for hackers to intercept your data or see your IP address. The more sophisticated the encryption algorithm is, the harder it becomes to break.
But, not all VPNs offer the same level of security.
Encryption strength and connection speed have a complex relationship. Stronger encryption requires better infrastructure to avoid slowing down connection speed. Every vendor has a unique solution to this problem, which is why every VPN service is different.
Airport hackers don’t have time to develop elaborate plans for intercepting encrypted data. In most cases, they are simply scanning for the easiest, most vulnerable targets they can find. But that doesn’t mean you need to skimp on your VPN’s encryption capabilities.
Here’s what to do:
Purchase or sign up for a free trial of a VPN service that offers powerful encryption without dramatically reducing speed. For example, Aura’s included VPN uses military-grade encryption to protect your data, whether you’re using an iPhone, Android, MacOS, or Windows.
2. Confirm the name of the Wi-Fi network with airport staff
When joining an airport Wi-Fi network, you may see multiple similar names. While this could mean that you’re close to multiple routers, it can also mean that hackers have set up look-alike networks disguised as the airport’s legitimate public network.
Unfortunately, most people don’t have the tools or expertise to tell the difference between these networks.
Here’s what to do:
Don’t automatically connect to Wi-Fi networks that seem like they’re legitimate. Instead, ask the airport’s customer service to confirm the network name and ask them how to connect to the airport’s network.
3. Don’t automatically join new Wi-Fi networks
Most computers and mobile devices can be configured to automatically join available Wi-Fi networks. However, this feature should be disabled in busy airport environments and other public areas.
Here’s what to do:
The process of disabling an automatic Wi-Fi connection is different for every operating system:
- On Windows computers, this option is located in “Network and Internet settings,” in the “Wi-Fi Status” menu, under “Change Adapter Options.”
- On Apple macOS devices, it is available directly in the Wi-Fi menu.
- On Android and iOS mobile devices, this option is located in the preferences menu unique to each Wi-Fi network.
💡 Related: How To Tell If Your Wi-Fi Is Hacked (and What To Do) →
4. Install antivirus software and make sure it’s running
Antivirus software detects and blocks malware in real-time. It does this by checking user and asset activities against known threat signatures. Since new cyberthreats are constantly emerging, antivirus vendors must continually update their software.
Every device you travel with should have its own antivirus software installed. This software will quietly scan, isolate, and neutralize infected files without disrupting the user experience.
Here’s what to do:
Purchase or start a free trial of reputable antivirus software. For example, every Aura plan includes powerful antivirus protection for your mobile devices and computers.
Remember, in order to work, your antivirus software must be enabled and working correctly. Make sure your antivirus solution is properly configured before traveling so that you can rest assured your devices are protected.
5. Avoid entering personal and sensitive data while traveling
Not all hackers rely on complex technical exploits to defraud victims. Sometimes it’s as simple as looking over someone’s shoulder or watching you type in your password. You can’t defend against these types of attacks using digital security solutions alone.
Here’s what to do:
Pay close attention to where and when you access sensitive data in public. For example, try not to give out your credit card numbers over the phone or enter your online banking information while in public.
If in doubt, ask whether you really need to look at your bank statement or credit card data at that exact moment. If it can be postponed until you’re in a safe, private place, you should wait.
💡 Related: What Is Cyber Hygiene? 10 Easy Habits For Online Safety →
6. Use a password manager to protect your credentials
The average American has up to 240 passwords that they regularly use [*]. But accurately remembering so many unique sequences of numbers, letters, and special characters is more than most people can do. Password managers make the process much easier and have built-in features that can help you stay safe on airport Wi-Fi.
Password managers create and securely store strong, unique passwords for your applications and accounts. This allows you to access all of your passwords when you need them, using a single master password that masks your individual passwords which are safely stored.
Here’s what to do:
Install and set up a password manager across all of your devices. For example, Aura’s included password manager works across iOS and Android devices, as well as in browsers such as Chrome, FireFox, and Microsoft Edge.
As an added bonus, most password managers will only input your credentials on legitimate websites, making them powerful tools for identifying fake websites.
Pro tip: Enable multi-factor authentication (MFA) whenever possible. Some password managers use MFA as part of their unlocking process. This circumvents the danger posed by keylogging malware.
7. Turn off Bluetooth as well as file and printer sharing
Hackers can compromise devices by accessing them through their file-sharing and printer ports. Sometimes they use these connections to directly attack victims’ devices. More commonly, these connections are used for reconnaissance – they provide information hackers can use to deploy other types of attacks.
Here’s what to do:
Double-check your file-sharing and printer settings before traveling. Make sure your devices don’t automatically connect to others on the same network. If you can connect your computer to multiple printers without configuring each one, you probably have an automatic connection enabled.
💡 Related: Can Bluetooth Be Hacked? Bluetooth Security Tips for 2023 →
8. Use Safe Browsing tools to warn you about dangerous websites
Digital security tools like those included in every Aura plan can help you avoid malicious websites and other threats. These tools work behind the scenes to identify spoof websites.
If you accidentally click on a link to a misconfigured web page, your browser will trigger a warning. This gives you a chance to double-check before deciding whether to press on or wait until later.
Here’s what to do:
Digital safety tools can provide a wide range of services beyond detecting spoof websites. Aura offers users a comprehensive suite of solutions for proactively detecting threats. This includes a password manager, VPN, and malware protection. These technologies complement one another, making it much harder for hackers to target you.
Alternatively, you can manually check a website’s URL and security certificate to make sure the website is secure.
💡 Related: Have I Been Hacked? How To Recognize a Hack →
9. Don’t log in to public networks using real information
Many free airport Wi-Fi services require new users to register before gaining access to the internet. Usually the registration process is painless and unintrusive, but some airport Wi-Fi services ask for more data than others. This happens more frequently in international foreign airports.
There is often no way to tell whether this data is protected or not. Every country has its own cybersecurity regulations, and not all of them enforce those regulations strictly.
Here’s what to do:
Don’t enter your actual personal information when signing up for airport Wi-Fi. It’s unlikely anyone will verify your identity, so it’s always better to reduce the exposure of your sensitive information.
If you’re asked for an email address, use an email alias to shield your inbox from scammers and hackers. For example, Aura automatically gives you the option to create an alias when signing up for a service. All emails to the alias will be automatically forwarded to your real inbox — but scammers won’t get your true email address.
10. When in doubt, use a mobile hotspot instead of airport Wi-Fi
While mobile data connections aren’t 100% foolproof, they are considerably stronger than unsecured public Wi-Fi. Telecom providers encrypt all data sent over 5G, LTE, and 4G connections.
This approach only works if you have a valid mobile data subscription in the territory you’re traveling through. For international travelers, that means either purchasing roaming service from your telecom provider or buying a local SIM card. It may not be feasible during a layover in a foreign airport.
Here’s what to do:
Check your roaming capabilities with your telecom provider, or buy a local SIM card. Then, create a Wi-Fi hotspot using your roaming-enabled (or local SIM-equipped) mobile device. Connect to your own network, and make sure that no one else has access to it.
Were You Hacked Over Wi-Fi? Do This!
If you think you’ve been hacked or are seeing warning signs of identity theft after using airport Wi-Fi, act quickly to minimize the damage.
Here’s what you should do to secure your accounts and devices:
- Look for signs that your device has been hacked. Your device may be running slower, hotter, or more unpredictably than usual. You may see apps and software that you don’t recognize, or a constant stream of unwanted pop-ups.
- Disconnect your devices from public Wi-Fi. Don’t continue using networks that you suspect are compromised. If possible, consider taking your device offline entirely until the issue is resolved.
- Inform airport staff. The airport’s information desk can direct you to its security operations team. They will help you determine how and when your device was compromised.
- Run a full antivirus scan to isolate malware. You may be able to safely use your device after running a successful antivirus scan. However, this depends on the type of attack that has targeted you.
- Update your passwords using a secure device. Don’t use your compromised device to update passwords. Use a separate device on a secure network. You may also protect your accounts by installing a password manager.
- Freeze your credit. Hackers may be looking to compromise your financial accounts. Stay one step ahead by freezing your accounts with all three credit bureaus — Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion.
- Monitor your bank and credit card accounts for suspicious transactions. Check your statements thoroughly and regularly to ensure that scammers haven’t gained access to your accounts. For added peace of mind, consider a credit monitoring service with fraud alerts like Aura.
- Consider signing up for a digital security solution. With Aura, you get proactive online security (antivirus, VPN, password manager) as well as three-bureau credit monitoring, top-rated identity theft protection, and 24/7 support from Fraud Remediation Specialists. And if the worst should happen, you’re covered by a $1,000,000 insurance policy for eligible losses due to identity theft.
The Bottom Line: Browse, Shop, and Work Online — Safely
All unsecured public Wi-Fi connections are susceptible to attack, but using free Wi-Fi while traveling is a major risk.
You should not share sensitive information over unsecured network connections, but it can’t always be avoided. This is especially true when you’re traveling, whether using an airport network or on your phone at a local coffee shop.
Digital security solutions offer excellent ways to protect yourself from scams when using public Wi-Fi. Prevent hackers from snooping on your internet connection by protecting your devices with Aura’s robust suite of security technologies.