Is Mobile Broadband More Secure than Wi-Fi?

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I recently upgraded my mobile phone and can now connect it to my laptop to get internet access almost anywhere. The salesperson said it will be more secure to use, even in places that offer Wi-Fi. Is it more secure?

Yes, but.

By and large, data connectivity through the cellular network is more secure than open Wi-Fi.

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

Caution: Wi-Fi AheadWith 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.)

But if you’re an average user, a mobile device coupled with a firewall and generally good internet behavior on your part, gets you all the security you typically need.

Costs

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.

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4 comments on “Is Mobile Broadband More Secure than Wi-Fi?”

  1. Leo, How about a little help. What if your cell phone was the broadband connection instead of your laptop. Then you wouldn’t care whether you were in a WiFi spot or not. Hopefully the cell phone would provide a secure connection. That’s what Bizzirk Mobile (Parent company – Unified Technologies Group)is touting. So what’s the true story? They claim to have an unlimited everything wireless service that gives the subscriber internet access, unlimited, voice, text, and true unlimited data cellular in the 2100 Mhz broadband range. Is this real? Any light you can shed on the subject would be appreciated. Thanks.

    I can’t comment on the specific product offering, as I’m not familiar with it, however: yes, in general cellular is more secure than an open WiFi hotspot. While theoretically sniff-able, it takes expertise and equipment most folks don’t have, so with WiFi being cheap and easy to sniff they focus on that. The catch is cost – depending on your cell provider there may be additional costs involved – and speed – cell typically isn’t as fast as a WiFi hotspot, though it can be. Truth is I travel with a cellular modem and typically use it.

    – Leo
    04-Jul-2009

  2. I once saw on BBC Click a feature about a German hackers group who setup their own cellular network for experimental purposes because of the severe legal consequences for hacking the commercial cellular network. I believe they succeeded in proving that it’s not difficult to hack it.

  3. So To clarify… Would it be correct to say that using your cell phone to connect your laptop to the Internet would be more secure than using the Wi-Fi network that might be available in that location? Is that correct? Thank you!

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