Avoid 'Free Public WiFi' Network At All Costs

Dennis Faas's picture

Frequent wireless Internet (WiFi) users are being warned this morning to never click on the network "Free Public WiFi". It's not actually free wireless, but a rogue network that can lead to the infiltration of a system by hackers.

Waiting for a plane several years ago, WiFi security guru Joshua Wright first noticed the "Free Public WiFi" network in an airport. Desperate for a connection, he was drawn to the option, but stopped short to investigate it first.

"I went to connect to an available wireless network and I saw this option, Free Public WiFi," Wright says.

"As I looked more and more, I saw this in more and more locations. And I was aware from my job and analysis in the field that this wasn't a sanctioned, provisioned wireless network, but it was actually something rogue." (Source: npr.org)

"Free Public WiFi" an Ad Hoc Network

Rogue it is. "Free Public WiFi" is not the kind of network that will provide access to the web, but is instead an ad hoc network, which means someone who successfully makes a connection is linking up with another person's PC rather than the Internet. By allowing this connection, a user puts himself at risk; it essentially opens up a gateway to allow a hacker into their computer.

How this issue came to be relates to a long-time Windows XP flaw. When struggling to find an available WiFi network, older versions of the operating system (OS) will initialize an ad hoc network with the same title as the last one to which it made a successful connection. In this case, that network was called "Free Public WiFi," and the name not only sticks, but spreads every time a new person connects. (Source: ciol.com)

Microsoft Recommends XP SP3, or Win7

Thus, it's easy to see how the issue has spread like wildfire across North America. The problem is, our addiction to the web has grown, and given the growing number of businesses that offer free WiFi access, a lot of us are easily convinced free wireless Internet is no longer too good to be true.

If you're running Windows XP, the best solution to the problem is to upgrade to Service Pack 3, an action Microsoft strongly recommends. That said, the option to upgrade to Windows 7 is also highly recommended -- especially now that it's on sale.

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