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Unknown connections: How safe is public WiFi in Aotearoa?

By Mitchell Hageman
Wed 29 Jun 2022

Kiwis often rely on the internet when they are out and about. Whether it's to check a bus timetable or bank balance, grab an Uber, check an email or even stream a movie, using a public WiFi hotspot may often seem like an easy and painless way to not chew up your personal 4G.

But with a seemingly simple process comes plenty of questions. If it's not your own household WiFi, then who has control of your data and is your connection actually safe?

In 2017, security company Norton in partnership with Symantec released a groundbreaking study on public WiFi safety in Aotearoa and around the globe. The results revealed that Kiwis were surprisingly oblivious to the risks involved. 

Two-thirds of the 1001 people surveyed thought their personal information was generally safe when they use public WiFi, but 71% actually acted unsafely when their behaviours were examined. 84% admitted to taking risks while on public WiFi. 

Risky behaviour was described as all actions that require users to send or receive information. This includes logging into personal email accounts, logging into social media accounts and checking bank or financial information.

Kiwis also struggled to define the difference between secure and unsecure WiFi, with 38% of respondents being unsure of what constitutes unsecure and secure WiFi. 66% of New Zealanders said they felt safe using public WiFi in general.

"There is a deep divide between what people think is safe when it comes to using public WiFi versus the reality," said Symantec executive vice president, consumer business unit Fran Rosch when commenting on the results.

"What someone thinks is private on their personal device can easily be accessed by cybercriminals through unsecure WiFi Networks or even apps with privacy vulnerabilities."

Norton business unit director Mark Gorrie agreed, saying that there's a significant divide between what Kiwis think is safe on public WiFi and what the reality actually is.

"Often what someone thinks is private on their personal device can easily be accessed by cybercriminals through unsecure WiFi Networks or even apps with privacy vulnerabilities," he remarked.

As the years have passed since the survey, COVID-19 has also played a pivotal role in determining public internet usage in Aotearoa. The need to be able to work from anywhere at any time due to the global health situation has only heightened reliance on public WiFi, and with this comes even more chances for security risks if people continue to practice unsafe behaviours.

While human factors undeniably play the most pivotal role in safe public WiFi usage, it also comes down to the network and network providers themselves.

Techday spoke to two key NZ organisations (One public and one private) who provide public WiFi services and asked them questions about public WiFi safety and security. These were the Auckland Council and telco provider Spark NZ.

"Auckland Council provides free public WiFi services at its libraries, service centres, Auckland Botanic Gardens, community centres, community halls and venues for hire – more than 200 sites in total," says Auckland Council Director ICT, Mark Denvir.

With an extensive network like this, data security and privacy are seen to be paramount, and the Council ensures they do not collect or retain sensitive data.

"This service is provided by a third-party supplier, which takes care of all basic security requirements. The Council, and our supplier, does not collect user data or registration information, users are only required to accept terms and conditions," says Denvir.

While security measures are an essential factor, Denvir says that there are also complex sociological and societal elements at play, and personal responsibility should play a key role in public WiFi safety as well.

"The provision of public WiFi is a balance between providing internet services for those who are unable to otherwise access them and applying necessary safety mechanisms, without these becoming barriers to access," he says.

"Public WiFi usage inherently requires personal responsibility, so we encourage users of any public WiFi services to make sure they follow best practice guidelines. Further advice can be sought from the government's Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT)."

Spark NZ is another provider of free public WiFi, with sites around New Zealand located on some of the company's public payphones.

The company says that free WiFi is more readily available in a range of places, from public libraries to malls and restaurants. They also say that because consumers also have access to large or unlimited data packs at increasingly cheaper rates, the use of their WiFi hot spots is on a downwards trajectory.

When commenting on the nature of the WiFi security, a company spokesperson said that they have clear security measures and processes in place.

"Spark's WiFi network is designed in a way that keeps end user traffic and core network functions separate. Access to the equipment is controlled by industry standard methods (TACACS+, LDAP)," they said.

"Both hardware and software firewalls are deployed in the network, and we don't permit inbound traffic to end users' devices. This prevents third parties from conducting network scans to find vulnerable devices."

The company also says that when it comes to data security, they do not require any user access details.

"Unlike some other public WiFi services, we do not require users to enter their email address or other personal information in order to access Spark public WiFi."

They also have a team that monitors network security to prevent further cybersecurity issues.

"Spark's public WiFi network is monitored by Spark's First Response Operations and Network Operations Centre," says the spokesperson.

"These teams provide 24/7 monitoring and assurance of the network. In addition, a virtual team conducts day to day maintenance and upgrades."

Spark agrees that online responsibility plays a key role in preventing cybersecurity issues when using public WiFi and suggests a number of tips to help users bolster safety:

  • Connect to websites securely (your connection to a website is secure if the URL starts with https://, usually indicated by a padlock symbol beside the browser URL).  
  • Take care when downloading or installing applications from outside of official app stores.
  • Only visit websites you know and trust, and take care to spell URLs correctly when navigating manually to a website.
  • Install and enable local firewall and antivirus software for your device (and ensure that virus and malware definitions are up-to-date).

They also recommend devices have all operating systems and security updates installed.

Both organisations reinforced the fact that personal responsibility is vital to WiFi usage security. While the research shows Kiwis are worried, they should have comfort in knowing that there are tools and systems in place to keep us safe, and if they exercise their own personal responsibility when using public WiFi, they can check that bus timetable or watch that TikTok with comfort.

Public Interest Journalism Fund logo
Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air.
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