Free public Wi-Fi is available everywhere from your local coffee shop to international flights. New networks are being rolled out frequently.
In Melbourne at the end of last year the Victorian government switched on Wi-Fi at the city’s major visitor sites and train stations, following full coverage being given to Bendigo and Ballarat. In Sydney Wi-Fi can, since January, be found on buses, and even the beach. Brisbane City Council has provided access across its parks and public spaces for a number of years (now being ‘copied’ in Cairns), while the network in Canberra continues to grow.
Private firms are increasing their provision of free Wi-Fi too. Customers can get internet access at every McDonalds across the country, as well as Westfield shopping centres, hospitals, care homes and since April, on select Virgin Australia and Qantas flights.
While hugely convenient and cost-effective for Australian consumers, many are putting their personal information at risk when using public Wi-Fi networks, according to a survey by Norton.
The 2017 Norton Wi-Fi Risk Report, released today, suggest Aussies are ‘big risk takers’ when using public Wi-Fi and highlights a concerning lack of security savvy among consumers accessing free networks.
The report surveyed more than 1,000 Australians to learn about their public Wi-Fi practices and perceptions.
Some 60 per cent said they feel safe when using public Wi-Fi, despite more than half of them (51 per cent) not using a VPN when connected.
Over half (59 per cent) admitted they were unable to tell if a public Wi-Fi network is secure. Despite this 83 per cent said they had used a public Wi-Fi network to log into personal email accounts, check bank balances and share photos and videos.
“There is a deep divide between what people think is safe when it comes to using public Wi-Fi versus the reality,” said Mark Gorrie, director of ANZ Norton business unit. “What someone thinks is private on their personal device can easily be accessed by cybercriminals through unsecured Wi-Fi Networks or even apps with privacy vulnerabilities.”
Only 19 per cent of Australians were able to tell if their apps are transmitting data securely over Wi-Fi, the survey found, falling short of their counterparts in India (51 per cent) and Hong Kong at (29 per cent).
Australians had a ‘perceived invincibility’ around using public Wi-Fi Gorrie added.
Signed, sealed, swindled
Consumers globally were “unable to resist” a strong, free Wi-Fi network, the survey found.
Wi-Fi was a deciding factor in many choices consumers made. Australians say access to a strong network influenced their choice of hotel (59 per cent), airline (29 per cent), and transport hub (28 per cent).
To gain access, one in three was willing to watch a three-minute advert, and nearly one in ten were willing to share personal information of some kind.
Six per cent would ‘allow permission to access and edit all my social media accounts’ for access, while a similar number would allow access to their contacts list. Five per cent said they would ‘allow permission to access my online dating profile’ for some time online.
A separate study published in January by RMIT University researchers found that many free public Wi-Fi providers were bamboozling users with lengthy terms and conditions that fail to inform them of the security risks involved in access.
Many terms of access texts required legal training to understand, the study found, and others were simply too long to be feasibly read in full, in one case running for 6,800 words.
The RMIT research included a survey of 1200 Australians which found that almost one in five conducted financial transactions over public Wi-Fi without taking any security precautions and one in seven undertook work-related activities on unsecured networks.
Norton recommended that consumers use a virtual private network when using public Wi-Fi; look for https on websites; and disable sharing in a device’s settings.
“Even if you’re not actively sharing the information, your device may be doing so for you. Many devices are programmed to automatically seek connections to other devices on the same network, which could cause your files to be vulnerable. Be sure to disable sharing on your devices to ensure what’s yours stays yours,” the company said.