That’s not a reflection of some inherent security difference in the technology, but more a reflection of just how ubiquitous and insecure open Wi-Fi really is.
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The risks of open Wi-Fi
From a security point of view, the difference is simply this: anyone with a Wi-Fi-enabled computer has what they need to be a hacker.
There’s no special equipment needed, and the software required is free, open source, and easily available for download. It’s even above board, as there are many legitimate uses for what’s called “packet sniffing” software.
The result is that anyone can use almost any laptop within range of an open Wi-Fi hotspot and sniff the traffic.
It’s easy. That’s why I have a full article on the ways to use an open Wi-Fi hotspot safely. And, indeed, one of the ways to be safe is to not use it at all, and use a mobile broadband connection instead.
The risks of mobile broadband
With mobile systems, such as your phone, the situation isn’t nearly as simple. Here, hackers need special equipment to start sniffing, and need to be able to decrypt the data as it is encrypted.
Neither of those are particularly difficult obstacles to overcome. I’m sure the hardware needed is available on the internet (isn’t everything?). As it turns out, the encryption isn’t particularly secure either, having been developed many years ago when mobile phones didn’t have the computational horsepower necessary for today’s more secure alternatives.
In other words, it takes some extra steps and expenses to start hacking the mobile network, but it’s possible.
However, given the ubiquity of open Wi-Fi, the fact that you don’t need special equipment, and the general lack of security employed by most people using the hotspot, the open Wi-Fi scenario is simply a much bigger, easier target to go after.
What if they’re after ME?
Now if you, specifically, are being targeted — say as part of some corporate espionage — perhaps it’s worth it for the hacker to invest in that additional technology. In that case, you’re better off with a wired connection, avoiding the airwaves completely. (Though, even then, depending on how lucrative a target you are, you could still be at risk.)
I mentioned costs above, and there are several trade-offs to be aware of.
- You’re paying extra for that monthly data plan on your mobile device. You could, instead, pay perhaps even less to a VPN to be secure in those open Wi-Fi hotspots. This would actually be more secure than either Wi-Fi alone or mobile broadband, and you could even use the service over your mobile connection should you feel the need.
- You may pay a price in speed. My experience is that mobile broadband is almost always slower than Wi-Fi. Granted, that depends on your mobile carrier and coverage, compared to how strong an internet connection the Wi-Fi access point is connected to and how many other people are using it at the same time you do.
- You may pay a price in location. With Wi-Fi, you need to locate a hotspot you’re allowed to use. Yep, it seems like they’re everywhere, and more seem to be appearing every day. With mobile broadband, however, as long as you’re in range of a tower, you have connectivity.
Finally, lest you think that plugging into a wall socket for hardwired ethernet connectivity is the safest of all, let me remind you that Wired connections can be as dangerous as Wi-Fi. Often overlooked, wired connections (particularly in public venues such as hotels) share almost all the risks of open Wi-Fi hotspots.