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Euro cops on free Wi-Fi not-so-hotspots: For pity's sake, don't use them for email

... or banking. Or Facebook. What were you THINKING?

Wi-Fi 802.11n

Using free Wi-Fi hotspots poses a data risk to users, the boss of European police agency Europol warns.

Troels Oerting, head of Europol's cybercrime centre, told BBC Click that growing number of attacks are being carried out via public Wi-Fi and that people should send personal data only across trusted networks.

"We have seen an increase in the misuse of Wi-Fi, in order to steal information, identity or passwords and money from the users who use public or insecure Wi-Fi connections," he said.

The issues posed by using insecure Wi-Fi have been known about for years, and underline the need to use a VPN connection when accessing the internet from insecure locales such as cafes, transport hubs and conference venues. But consumers often ignore these best practices, putting them at increased risk of getting hacked as a result.

Sean Sullivan, security advisor at anti-virus firm F-Secure, commented:

"This has been a concern for years - that's why sensible companies force employees to use VPN connections. A Firefox plugin called 'Firesheep' definitively demonstrated just how utterly insecure Wi-Fi hotspots can be back in 2010."

Sullivan added that he used open hotspots all the time but always took care to take basic security precautions when he did.

"If you want to use an open Wi-Fi hotspot to search for the latest sports scores - go for it. But if you want to check your bank balance, read your email, have a private chat with your friends – get yourself a VPN service,” he concluded.

According to a recent Kaspersky Lab survey, 34 per cent of people using a PC admitted to taking no special measures to protect their online activity when using a Wi-Fi hotspot. Only one in eight (13 per cent) take the time to actively check the encryption standard of any access point before they use it.

The Kaspersky Lab survey does offer some comfort to those concerned about consumer attitudes to internet security. Only one in seven (14 per cent) of those quizzed were comfortable banking or shopping online while connected to an untrusted Wi-Fi hotspot.

In a related development, privacy groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation have teamed up with tech firms such as Twitter and privacy-focused search service DuckDuckGo to push a campaign to improve data security for consumers in a post-Snowden world of dragnet surveillance.

The Encrypt all the Things campaign has drawn up a seven point Data Security Action Plan of 2014 designed to promote better data protection practices by websites and the technology industry, as well as promoting greater security awareness about privacy-enhancing technologies among consumers. ®

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