Recently, NBC’s Today show team presented some topical segments on the dangers of open, unsecure Wi-Fi that are commonplace at Hotels and other locations https://www.today.com/money/how-protect-your-data-hackers-while-spring-break-t124181 and https://www.today.com/money/spring-break-travel-safety-jeff-rossen-offers-tips-t125260 (head to 3:10 for the Wi-Fi segment in this one). Both highlight again the growing everyday risks to users in being knowingly (or unknowingly) attached to open Wi-Fi networks where their usage can easily be monitored, intercepting sensitive personal data such as Credit card numbers, Bank and Email account information.
The 2 major problems with open, unsecured Wi-Fi network SSIDs are:
While legitimate open networks use this IP connection to implement what is well known as a ‘walled garden’ or captive portal so when a user opens their internet browser they are corralled on a portal page where they need to sign up for internet access – a bad actor can easily set up a rogue Access Point with the same or similar network SSID name in close proximity to groups of targeted users and provide them direct access to the internet while at the same time intercepting all their application usage for nefarious purposes.
Changing the Hotel Wi-Fi network security type to WPA-PSK (pre-shared key) would solve some problems, but the user experience still falls short of the seamlessness of using Cellular data. The Hotel has to distribute a password to guests at check-in time, users have to enter it manually and that still doesn’t preclude guests from the security risk of first attaching to a strategically placed, open, unsecured SSID with the same name. One of the pool goers in the first segment is given the sound advice of going back on the cellular network when doing anything related to banking or entering credit cards, since it is much more secure. It’s easy to do just that – as all a user has to do is simply turn off Wi-Fi and the device is auto attached, authenticated and authorized instantaneously to a secure, encrypted network without any manual intervention.
With Passpoint Wi-Fi networks and the appropriate roaming agreements being in place, we can have that same comparable, experience on Wi-Fi! What if a user was automatically attached to the Hotel Wi-Fi network automatically, in the same way as to Cellular data when turning on their phone or coming out of airplane mode? A user would be attached on the basis of their available, existing device subscriptions e.g. for their Home Mobile Operator or Internet Service Provider. The user does nothing except turn on the Wi-Fi and the device and the Wi-Fi Access Points do the rest; the same as the device and cell towers serving our ubiquitous Cellular data coverage.
Who benefits here? Everyone! Aside from the obvious benefits to the user of removing the risk of having their sensitive, personal data hijacked, exposure to Identify theft etc., there are many commercial benefits here too. Both Hotel and Mobile Operator have the opportunity to differentiate what they are offering vs their competitors in the highly relevant areas of user data security and overall user experience. The Mobile Operator may see additional benefits in promoting secure Wi-Fi over Cellular data usage in certain circumstances e.g. to keep wholesale costs of roaming cellular data down when the user is roaming / traveling internationally, or in user dense locations on their own Cellular network such as Sports Stadia or downtown metro areas.