“Do you have free Wi-Fi?”

By: Francis Dinha, CEO of OpenVPN

Any remote employee working out of a coffee shop has probably asked this question before. As work becomes increasingly mobile and employees hop on free public Wi-Fi networks, it also leaves businesses vulnerable to damaging cyberattacks.

Hackers love public Wi-Fi — it’s an unencrypted, often poorly protected connection that can be easily exploited by hackers who identify network security flaws to intercept data. For companies with remote employees, these unprotected networks pose a significant security risk, leaving sensitive information ready for the taking.

Small Businesses Have No Idea Who Is Eavesdropping on Their Free Wi-fi

Free Wi-Fi has turned cafes and hotel lobbies into shared workspaces where employees can access their work email and other sensitive documents. An astounding 75 percent of Americans have admitted to accessing their personal email on an open network. While free Wi-Fi has transformed where remote employees can work, it also makes public spaces a prime target for hackers looking to get their hands on profitable information.

The DarkHotel spear-phishing campaign is one example of how hackers leveraged public Wi-Fi networks to target business executives working in luxury hotels. Attackers waited until victims connected to their hotel’s Wi-Fi before prompting users to install counterfeit software updates, infecting a guest’s computer with keyloggers and other forms of malware. Once installed, the malware monitored guests’ passwords and communications, putting both their personal information and their company’s data at risk for exploitation.

Attacks like this are all too common when unsuspecting customers hop on a business’ public Wi-Fi, regardless if they are accessing work documents or their personal bank accounts. While small businesses tend to offer free internet to draw more customers into their stores, it also makes data and user identities vulnerable to hackers. Luckily, there are several strategies end users and providers can implement to safely transmit information across public internet networks.

Why a VPN Is the Best First Line of Defense When Connecting to a Public Hotspot

If employees are going to continue working at coffee shops and other public spaces, businesses should consider offering a virtual private network service to keep their information safe.

Using a VPN is one of the best ways to keep browser information under wraps as it encrypts traffic between devices (like laptops and mobile phones) and a VPN server. VPNs utilize a combination of dedicated connections and encryption protocols to insulate devices from public Wi-Fi. As an added bonus, users with a VPN can spoof their physical location and make it harder for hackers to pinpoint a computer’s actual address.

When deployed correctly, VPNs create a secure tunnel through which remote employees can access company servers for work. This tunnel connects employees, wherever they may be, directly to their company’s internal network and prevents hackers from spying on a business’ remote server. A VPN also protects data from packet sniffing, a common network attack that intercepts and logs any traffic passing through a digital network, by encrypting files so hackers can’t read what’s inside. It’s clear that a VPNs handle multiple use cases for small business all the way to large enterprises, but they are for more than protecting business documents. A coffee shop patron who connects to his or her social media accounts should strongly consider using  VPN to keep prying eyes away from any personally identifiable information. With so much data in transit to and from devices in coffee shops, airports, hotels or public spaces, VPNs are applicable for both businesses and consumers.

Small businesses will likely continue offering free internet to attract and retain paying customers, but securing their Wi-Fi router is low on their list of priorities. If companies don’t have a secure VPN to offer its remote workforce, employees should consider using a public VPN service to aid their computer’s antivirus software. Above all, remote employees and anyone trying to get online will need to exercise common sense and caution before connecting to a free Wi-Fi hotspot. A VPN is not a silver bullet, and is unlikely to protect sensitive information if an employee’s computer is already infected with a virus.

Public Wi-Fi offerings can attract some shady characters, but that doesn’t mean employees should shy away from working in coffee shops and public workspaces. With a VPN in place, supported by antivirus software, businesses can encourage employees to keep working on a free hotspot wherever they may be.

Francis Dinha is the CEO and co-founder of OpenVPN, a security-focused open source VPN protocol. With more than 50 million downloads, OpenVPN has been in the open source networking space since its founding in 2004. Its Private Tunnel service provides “last mile” security to millions of consumer mobile devices, doing everything from online purchasing to checking bank accounts.

Photo: Free Wi-Fi stock photo by panuwat phimpha/Shutterstock