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Is Mobile More Secure than Wi-Fi?

Why you might use your mobile data plan for security.

Caution: Wi-Fi Ahead
(Image: canva.com)
Mobile broadband is a popular internet connection alternative. As with any connection, it's important to understand the security ramifications and tradeoffs.
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; it’s a reflection of how ubiquitous and insecure open Wi-Fi really is.

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TL;DR:

Wi-Fi vs mobile security

Mobile data connections are generally more secure than using someone else’s open Wi-Fi or other internet connection. Mobile data is more difficult to intercept, whereas open Wi-Fi makes for an easy target. Mobile connections make a good alternative to third-party connections if there’s any security concern at all.

The risks of open Wi-Fi

From a security point of view, the difference is 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 lawful, as there are many legitimate uses for what’s called “packet sniffing” software.

The result is that anyone can use a laptop within range of an open Wi-Fi hotspot and sniff (monitor) the data being transmitted on that hotspot.

It’s easy. That’s why I have an 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 mobile data instead.

The risks of mobile

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. I’m sure the hardware needed is available on the internet (isn’t everything?). As it turns out, cell-phone 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 you don’t need special equipment, and the general lack of security employed by most people using hotspots, the open Wi-Fi scenario is 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 gives you all the security you typically need.

Costs

There are several trade-offs between mobile and Wi-Fi to be aware of.

  • If you are paying extra for the monthly data plan on your mobile device, you may spend less paying for a VPN to be secure in open Wi-Fi hotspots. This would be more secure than either Wi-Fi or mobile data, and you could use the service over your mobile connection should you feel the need.
  • You may pay a price in speed. Mobile broadband is sometimes, though not always, slower than Wi-Fi. This depends on your mobile carrier and coverage compared to the speed of the Wi-Fi connection and how many other people are using it at the same time.
  • 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.

Do this

Use the connection type that gives you the security you need. If you can trust the Wi-Fi connection, great! Otherwise, if there’s any question at all, consider using your data plan.

Mobile versus Wi-Fi is just one aspect of keeping yourself safe and secure online. Subscribe to Confident Computing for more! Less frustration and more confidence, solutions, answers, and tips in your inbox every week.

4 comments on “Is Mobile 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

    Reply
  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.

    Reply
  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!

    Reply

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