The Extra Mile

Is it safe to use hotel wi-fi?

Our travel expert has the answer

28 July 2019 - 00:00
Hotel wi-fi is is safe - if you take some basic steps to protect yourself.
Hotel wi-fi is is safe - if you take some basic steps to protect yourself.
Image: 123rf.com/maridav

Q. I am travelling in the US next month and staying in various hotels. I was planning on using the free wi-fi in all the hotels, but a colleague tells me that this is not safe and cyber criminals could steal my passwords. Is this true? How can I protect myself? - Dave Richards 

A. Your colleague is correct to offer a word of caution. Public wi-fi networks, while convenient and fast, may have multiple users on them at the same time. 

Any potential hacker - at least one who knows what they're doing - can basically "see" what you're doing and launch what's known as a "middle man attack".

How safe you feel, however, depends entirely on whom you listen to - or what you read. Wired magazine, for example, said in a 2018 article that hotel wi-fi networks had not become any more secure than before but that the web itself has instead.

On the other side, there are stern warnings in abundance about the dangers of unsecured wi-fi networks.

It's worth noting that many of the scary stories are written by those who would like you to subscribe to a Virtual Private Network (VPN), which offers fairly bulletproof security.

A VPN is a simple encryption tool which creates a virtual tunnel between your device and a remote VPN server. The VPN acts as a go-between, effectively shielding you from hackers. You can find several of these services online.

Wired magazine says the advent of HTTPS - Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure - has made hackers' lives much more difficult. Websites using the HTTPS protocol send encrypted data to your browser and back.

Wired also notes that, while in March 2016 only 21 of the web's top 100 sites were using HTTPS, today most the vast majority of websites have HTTPS switched on by default.

Still, there are some basic steps you can use to protect yourself.

The first is to protect your username and password, the things hackers want most. Replace your static password with a one-time password. If you use Gmail, use the Google Authenticator app to add two-factor authentication.

You can also buy a local SIM card and use your cellphone as a hotspot.

Goodspeed (goodspeed.io - and, yes, it's HTTPS) offers a 4G hotspot for $99 plus 250MB
of data for $8.50 per day. It's still going to hurt if you're paying in rands but not nearly as much as if you were using mobile data from your own provider.

Locally, I have a data contract with a cellphone provider and never go anywhere without my dongle. I loathe the wi-fi at SA airports so the R89 a month subscription is worth every cent.

We can help with your destination dilemmas, visa puzzles and itinerary ideas. E-mail us on travelmag@sundaytimes.co.za


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