As a general rule I avoid local networks I don’t personally administer. If I’m at an event with free Wi-Fi I still use my cell phone’s data and tethering mode when I need to access the Internet on my laptop. For those times I cannot avoid using a local network I route my data through a Virtual Private Network (VPN) connection. Although these measures won’t stop my Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and their partners from snooping on me they do prevent malicious actors on a local network from snooping on me. Attendees at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) who opted into the free Wi-Fi became excellent demonstrations on the lack of privacy you have when using a local Wi-Fi network without a VPN connection:
This week, more than 170,000 tech and media professionals converged on the city of Las Vegas to see the latest in technology at the Consumer Electronics Show, and––inevitably––some of them used their smart, connected devices to try to get laid.
Vector Media offered attendees free WiFi at major hotels, shuttle buses, and convention centers throughout the week in exchange for collecting anonymized app usage data. More than 1,800 people opted in, and Vector found a whopping 61 percent of attendees’ used Tinder while at CES––nearly five times more than productivity app Slack, which only 12.8 percent of attendees on Vector’s network used. Facebook Messenger came in first place with 74.3 percent, and Grindr also made an appearance on its list of apps in use, at 16 percent.
The amount of information a local network administrator can obtain about you would likely surprise most people. In addition to that the amount of attacks a malicious actor on a local network can perform is notable. If you value your privacy or security I would recommend avoiding Wi-Fi networks you don’t personally control as much as possible (granted, even your own network isn’t necessarily trustworthy but you have far more control in most cases than with other networks).