When Dubai resident J connected his laptop to the public Wi-Fi of a hotel in the UAE, he had no idea how it would turn into his worst nightmare.
His entire system was hacked and every account he had was compromised. “I got a call from hackers asking me to pay them a ransom in bitcoin to release my Tiktok account which had over 10,000 followers,” he said. “But I wasn’t going to do that, so they deleted my account.”
J is one among several others who have had their systems hacked after connecting to public Wi-Fi globally.
Earlier this year, one of UAE’s top cybersecurity experts had shared an incident about a vulnerability in the public Wi-Fi of a company in the US which resulted in such a massive breach that the institution went bankrupt within months.
In March, Dr. Mohammed Hamad Al Kuwaiti, head of cybersecurity in the government of UAE explained during a conference how a US-based company had brought in a team to renovate an aquarium they had within their premises. When one of the workers connected to their public Wi-Fi, a vulnerability resulted in hackers being able to break into the company’s internal system, enabling them to siphon off millions of dollars.
Now, cybersecurity experts are advising residents to take precautions when connecting to public networks.
“One of the biggest threats is that many public Wi-Fi options don’t have any security controls on them at all,” said Joseph Carson, Chief Security Scientist & Advisory CISO, Delinea. “It is not a very common occurrence to get hacked from a public Wi-Fi connection, but it does happen and can have a serious impact to the victim such as identity theft or financial fraud. So, while the frequency is not often, it can have a major impact when it does.”
Another expert added that residents should also watch out for rogue Wi-Fi connections. “Malicious entities create deceptive Wi-Fi networks that appear legitimate to deceive users into connecting,” said Paul Baird, CTSO at Qualys “Once connected, these malicious actors can capture and intercept the entirety of the user's transmitted data.”
Carson added that there are several precautions people must take when connected to public Wi-Fi. “Always assume someone is monitoring your data whenever you use a public Wi-Fi connection. Therefore, don’t access your sensitive data, such as financial information, don’t change your passwords, and beware of entering your credentials.”
Always be sure to remove the connection from public Wi-Fi once you are finished and be sure to disable the “automatically join known networks” feature. That way, when connecting to the Wi-Fi, you’ll need to review the correct network name and see whether it’s secure and protected.
According to Baird, some installations could also help when connecting to a public Wi-Fi. “One of the most effective steps you can take is to utilise a Virtual Private Network (VPN) on your device,” he said. “VPNs create a secure, encrypted connection between your device and the internet, helping shield your data from potential eavesdropping or interception.”
He also added that firewalls are extremely important on devices. “Ensuring that your device's firewall is not only enabled, but also configured with optimal security settings, is vital,” he said. “Firewalls act as barriers against unauthorised access and can help prevent malicious entities from exploiting potential vulnerabilities on your device.”
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