It’s always been a given that connecting to public Wi-Fi can leave you at risk of having your internet session spied on by a hacker. Cyber safety commercials typically show a shady looking person sitting with a laptop at the back of a coffee shop stealing the confidential data of an unsuspecting patron using the shop’s free hotspot.
But public Wi-Fi is often necessary to use, especially when traveling, and people tend to want that internet connection so much, that they’ll connect without even knowing much about where the free Wi-Fi is coming from. And a good antivirus program can’t always stop them, depending upon their tactics.
In a study performed by Avast Antivirus they set up 3 public Wi-Fi spots at a local Barcelona airport to see how many users would connect, not knowing where the free Wi-Fi was coming from. In four hours, over 2,000 people used the free hotspots even though they knew nothing about them.
So, do you have to just resign yourself to the fact that security is going to be a price you pay for public Wi-Fi? Not for much longer, because coming out by the end of 2019 is a major update to wireless connection protocols known as 802.11ax aka Wi-Fi 6.
The Security Benefits of 802.11ax with WPA3 Security Protocol
It’s been about 15 years since there’s been an update to the security protocol used for wireless connections, known as Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA).
The current Wi-Fi standard that’s used is 802.11ac (known as Wi-Fi 5). While this standard was released just five years ago, the WPA2 security protocol it uses was released in 2004, a decade earlier.
The Security Issue with 80211.ac (Wi-Fi 5) and WPA2
The reason it’s dangerous to connect to an unsecure public Wi-Fi is because of a severe security vulnerability (nicknamed KRACK) found in WPA2. It allows hackers that are within range of a vulnerable device to intercept the traffic and basically spy on you to gain access to passwords, emails, and other data. They can also infect a website that you’re visiting with malware.
This vulnerability allows the hacker to break the encryption of traffic that’s supposed to be secure. Hackers can steal things like:
Photos & other files
Credit card numbers
Safeguards Built into 802.11ax (Wi-Fi 6) and WPA3
While Wi-Fi 6 is offering improvements in the speed, battery life, and multi-device handling, its biggest benefit will be in the safety department. Its going to make connecting to public hotspots much more secure.
A combination of security measures in Wi-Fi 6 will make it much safer to connect to public Wi-Fi
Here is a rundown of the security enhancements you’ll see coming in Wi-Fi 6 with WPA3.
Individualized Data Encryption
The traffic between your device and the pubic Wi-Fi network you’re connecting to is going to be encrypted individually, greatly increasing privacy. That encryption will happen automatically, even if you didn’t need to enter a password to connect.
This makes it impossible for people to spy on your traffic just by being on the same Wi-Fi without cracking your individual encryption.
Protection from Brute-Force Attacks
When any device connects to a wireless router a “handshake” is performed that checks the password and connects you to the Wi-Fi network. This handshake procedure is part of the KRACK vulnerability discovered in WPA2.
In WPA3, the security of this handshake procedure is greatly increased. It uses what’s known as a Dragonfly handshake, which requires network interaction on any potential login. This keeps hackers from downloading a network’s cryptographic hash and trying to crack it offline by use of special software.
Another security quality of that handshake comes from the fact that WPA3 uses what’s called Simultaneous Authentication of Equals (SAE). This offers forward secrecy, which is a security feature that stops hackers from capturing older traffic to decrypt if they’ve hacked a network password.
Advanced Encryption for Sensitive Networks
While you most likely won’t see this security feature employed on free public Wi-Fi networks, it’s a big enhancement for government organizations or industries that have particularly sensitive data. WPA3 will come with the ability to use a higher encryption level, 192-bit encryption, which will make it even harder to be hacked.
Check Before You Connect
There is no specific date when 802.11ax (Wi-Fi 6) and WPA 3 will be available. Router manufacturers are already rolling out Wi-Fi 6 enabled routers, but the only date we have as of now is that it will be released by the end of 2019.
Even once it’s available, you’ll still want to check when connecting to public Wi-Fi to see if they advertise use of the new standard. It may take a while for everyone to roll it out, and you don’t want to have a false sense of security if they’re still using a WPA2 protocol on their network.
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