Since its original iteration in 1997, Wi-Fi has evolved into the technological standard by which devices connect to a network and access the internet. Wi-Fi uses radio waves and wireless technology, allowing users great mobility and flexibility for connectivity. But much more goes into Wi-Fi than simply connecting our devices to a network.
What Does It Stand For?
Wi-Fi, which stands for Wireless Fidelity, is a wireless networking technology that enables electronic devices to connect seamlessly to a network via radio frequencies. The network called a Wireless Local Area Network (or “WLAN” for short) allows devices like smartphones, tablets, laptops, and computers to connect to the internet and communicate with one another with no physical cables required, like the case with Ethernet ports.
Most wireless networks are typically set up using a router, which acts as a hub that transmits the wireless signal or Wi-Fi frequency. Given the simplicity and ease of access, Wi-Fi networks have become mainstream across various venues, including commercial offices, airports, hotels, coffee shops, libraries, and other public spaces. This, however, raises security concerns as some public networks lack the proper security protocols, making it possible for hackers to access and steal personal or confidential information.
How Does Wi-Fi Work?
Wi-Fi works by transmitting radio waves in various frequencies to provide wireless internet and network connections at varying speeds. Commonly grouped into 2.4 GHz, 5 GHz, and 6 GHz frequency ranges, generally, the higher the Wi-Fi band frequency, the faster the internet speeds. However, depending on your needs, a higher frequency isn't always better. Lower frequencies like 2.4 GHz travel farther and provide a longer range at lower speeds than 6 GHz, which provides faster speeds and higher performance but offers a shorter travel range.
To deliver an efficient and reliable connection, Wi-Fi uses one of many IEEE 802.11 protocols, a set of standards developed by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), to determine WLAN specifications. The most widely used protocols include 802.11a, 802.11b, 802.11g, 802.11n, and 802.11ac, each providing its own unique set of parameters, like operating frequency range, maximum data rate, and modulation techniques.
Wi-Fi works as two-way communication between a device and the router. When a device wants to connect to a Wi-Fi network, it casts a broadcast message referred to as a “probe request” that scans for available nearby networks. The router, known more broadly as the Wi-Fi's “access point,” receives the request and responds with its own broadcast message called a “beacon” that contains the name of the network (SSID), the type of encryption being used (if any), and the signal strength (RSSI).
Once a device receives the access point's beacon, it connects to the network by sending an “authentication request.” The access point then verifies the device's credentials (e.g., Wi-Fi password) and assigns it an IP address. At that point, the device is officially connected to the Wi-Fi network. It can access the internet if the network is connected to it or can communicate with other devices on the same network.
Types of Wireless Networks
The four primary types of wireless networks are Wireless LAN, Wireless MAN, Wireless PAN, and Wireless WAN. Each type is unique based on its range and connectivity requirements and can be used for specific applications and use cases.
Wireless LAN (Local Area Network)
As mentioned above, WLANs are widely known as the most popular network type commonly used in commercial and residential applications or use cases with small coverage areas. They typically offer high speeds but have a limited range, so oftentimes, these networks are designed with multiple access points to ensure adequate coverage.
Wireless MAN (Metropolitan Area Network)
As indicated by “Metropolitan,” MANs are typically leveraged for use cases that demand more expansive coverage, such as a university campus or the downtown stretch of a city. In turn, MANs provide a much larger range but are often not quite as fast as WLANs.
Wireless PAN (Personal Area Network)
This type of wireless network is designed to connect a minimal number of devices within a very small coverage area, such as a single room. They can also be used for medical devices within a person's body that require a Wi-Fi connection to function. A wireless PAN is preferred in applications that require low-power consumption and only short-range connectivity.
Wireless WAN (Wide Area Network)
As the most expansive, long-range wireless network option, a WAN is used for broad coverage areas, such as an entire region, state, or country. They're commonly used in cellular networks and satellite communications and typically comprise multiple LANs and MANs together to provide internet access to an extensive area.
Using Public Wi-Fi: Risks and How to Stay Safe
Public Wi-Fi, also known as “open Wi-Fi”, is relied upon by individuals needing an internet connection while out and about. It's common in coffee shops, hotels, airports, and other public places. Public Wi-Fi may be free, but security costs can be high.
Consider research conducted by Spiceworks showing that 61% of employees use company-owned devices on public Wi-Fi networks. So, ensuring those connections are secure is vital. To combat the security risks associated with using public Wi-Fi, users must take precautions to protect their data and devices.
Public Wi-Fi Security Risks
Using public Wi-Fi networks means exposure to numerous security pitfalls. Here are three of the top vulnerabilities:
- Man-in-the-Middle (MitM) Attacks: MitM is when a hacker intercepts communication between a client and a server. Any data transmitted between the two can be stolen, including login credentials, banking details, and personal information.
- Rogue Wi-Fi Networks: Hackers can set up fake Wi-Fi networks that mimic legitimate ones but are actually designed to capture data. Users may connect to these networks thinking they are safe, but it's a ploy to steal their data.
- Malware Insertion: Cybercriminals can use public Wi-Fi networks to infect devices with malware. If your device is not updated with the latest security patches, it can be vulnerable to these attacks.
What Data Can Be Stolen?
Any data transmitted over a public Wi-Fi session is at risk of being intercepted, including:
- Personal identifiable information: Addresses, credit card numbers, and other sensitive personal details, anything that falls under the PII umbrella.
- Login credentials: Usernames and passwords can be captured and used to access accounts.
- Emails: Any emails sent or received can be intercepted.
- Text messages: Any messages sent or received via a phone connected to public Wi-Fi are susceptible to being intercepted.
How to Safely Use Public Wi-Fi
While using public Wi-Fi networks can be risky, sometimes it’s unavoidable. However, there are ways to stay safe. Here are some tips:
- Set up your Wi-Fi connection so it does not automatically connect.
- Check websites where you share data (including login credentials) are HTTPS, not HTTP.
- Avoid using mobile apps to log into an account via public Wi-Fi, as the app itself may be insecure (much harder to tell).
- Avoid accessing sites such as online banking altogether while on a public Wi-Fi network.
- Avoid free and open public Wi-Fi, i.e., one that does not require a password for access.
- Disable file-sharing across networks when you are out and about.
- Log out of accounts after you’ve finished using them.
- Use a Virtual Private Network (VPN) to help protect against MitM attacks. Some examples of VPN products include NordVPN, ExpressVPN, and SurfShark.
- Consider using a travel Wi-Fi router – your mobile internet connector that connects more securely when you’re outside the office.
- Stay security aware – scams and fraud can happen at any time, but being security conscious gives you the heads-up to know how to stay cyber-safe
Remote workers and professionals who access sensitive data or log in to accounts with company credentials must be aware of the risks of using public Wi-Fi and use due diligence to protect their data and devices. For more information on what organisations and professionals alike can do to combat public Wi-Fi concerns, see resources and recommendations based on Proofpoint’s User Risk Report.
What Types of Wi-Fi Connections Are Available?
Beyond the general types of wireless networks above, different technologies support certain forms of Wi-Fi connectivity. The most common types are a router or wireline, a mobile hotspot or jetpack, LTE, and 5G.
This most common form of Wi-Fi connectivity relies on a wired connection, such as a cable modem or Digital Subscriber Line (DSL), to establish an internet connection. From this connection, a router distributes a wireless network that devices can connect to. As a popular form of Wi-Fi connection for commercial and residential applications, a router enables multiple devices to connect to the internet simultaneously.
Mobile Hotspot or Jetpack
As more and more professionals work remotely, mobile hotspots are gaining popularity by utilizing a cellular data connection (typically from a smartphone or compact portable router) to share a wireless network with neighboring devices, like a laptop. In other words, the smartphone acts as a bridge that allows devices to connect to the internet through its cellular data connection. Although mobile hotspots come with risks and consume significant data, they're incredibly convenient when other connectivity options are unavailable.
LTE, or Long-Term Evolution, is a wireless communication standard of high-speed data for mobile phones and data terminals. It requires a special LTE router to provide residential internet access. The router connects to a cellular network, such as 4G or 5G, and produces a Wi-Fi signal to which other devices can connect. The benefit of LTE is that it provides faster data transfer and lower latency, which allows for more efficient network use.
As a level-up from LTE, this type of Wi-Fi connection uses the 5G cellular network to provide an internet connection. This form of connectivity requires a specific 5G-compatible router or a 5G-enabled device to establish the wireless network. 5G is faster and more efficient than 4G, providing a stable, high-speed connection with dramatically lower latency. It's the top-performing option for heavy, multi-device usage like gaming, streaming, or supporting home automation technologies.
Wi-Fi Security Risks and Concerns
Public wireless networks, like at a coffee shop or a library, pose Wi-Fi security risks and concerns. Some of the most common include:
- Piggybacking: While not always malicious, this term refers to using someone else's wireless network without permission. Attackers use piggybacking to access someone's network to find and steal personal or business information.
- Wardriving: Related to piggybacking, wardriving involves searching for Wi-Fi networks in a moving vehicle using a laptop or smartphone. This practice allows attackers to cover more ground to identify vulnerable networks where sensitive information can be stolen.
- Rogue Wi-Fi Hotspots: Attackers intentionally set up wireless access points that mimic legitimate networks to deceive users into logging into the wrong network to steal their sensitive information. Rogue hotspots are usually not password protected, making it easy for users to access them.
- File-Sharing: Unless you're utilizing a Wi-Fi network for work or between trusted parties, file-sharing is a huge security risk. It involves sharing documents or media between multiple devices on the same network. Never open file-sharing from your device when using a public Wi-Fi network.
- Malware and Ransomware: These malicious software programs (malware) can infiltrate a device and steal personal information or hold the device's data for ransom. As such, ransomware attacks are a growing problem in commercial environments. Both threats can spread through Wi-Fi networks and cause considerable damage to the device and the parties who own them.
- Packet Sniffers: Commonly used by hackers, packet sniffers are specialized software tools that capture and analyze data packets transmitted over a network. Attackers use them to intercept and extract sensitive information, like credit card numbers or passwords to bank accounts.
These are just some of the more common Wi-Fi security concerns. The Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency provides additional security concerns and tips to help you minimize your wireless network risks.
For information about cybersecurity solutions to better protect your Wi-Fi networks, learn more about Proofpoint.