As a teenager in today's age, I have recently suffered one of the most horrible experiences one can have in his or her lifetime: a lack of Internet connectivity. Indeed, my phone line went out recently, and the DSL went with it. (Fortunately, I am slightly exaggerating here; I can do just fine without a few days of Internet.) But with more and more products going mobile and online, you are really placed at a disadvantage if you have no way to access the Internet. Data plans and smart phones are expensive, and Wi-Fi is limited to your house and free hot-spots (and the occasional FiOS network that has not changed the default password). Is there a way to give Internet to everybody without costing much or slacking on availability? London's mayor thinks so, because he recently promised that by the 2012 Olympics, every lamppost will have free Wi-Fi access. But is public Wi-Fi for all a safe, secure, or even efficient option?
Consumers are definitely in need of a continuous channel through which they can access their online services. Google and numerous other companies have launched innovations in cloud computing like never before, making your computer essentially dead without an Internet connection. With such a hunger for constant connectivity, it only seems natural that people would jump to public Wi-Fi, which is essentially the wireless connection they have at home extended everywhere. This seems like a good idea superficially, because it does indeed provide everybody with Internet access. Furthermore, whatever company or government that hosts this public Wi-Fi would have the ability to make some type of profit by offering premium services. But what I have been noticing more and more about public wireless Internet is the security risk that comes along with it.
The primary difference between connecting something like your mobile phone to a service provider and a laptop to a wireless router is that your laptop is not alone. While a smart phone would have a direct connection to the service provider through the cell antennas, laptop computers share a wireless network with whoever else is connected to that router, and all of these clients are held together in an internal network. The problem here is that it opens up all possibilities of security risks, primarily because now a random stranger on a computer has direct access to your laptop's firewall. Chances are your computer is not a security stronghold, and you would not fare well against a direct attack. Even worse is that this risk does not go away even on your own home network! Most home wireless networks are secured with WEP, which has a number of security flaws and is obsolete in terms of security. (This does not even take into account the fact that my house is surrounded by three or four FiOS networks, all of which have not changed the default password for their wireless.)
Another problem with free public Wi-Fi is the identity of the service provider itself. Back in 2008, people were wondering why Windows kept showing a "Free Public Wi-Fi" ad-hoc network. Fortunately, the network was a result of something in Windows, but it could just have easily been a cracking attempt. That free public Wi-Fi network might have been somebody across the room waiting for the unsuspecting computer user to connect and place their device at risk. This brings up the question of how we can establish the identity of the wireless network in the first place, considering there are no real protocols in place to exchange certificates with a router like you can do with a server over HTTPS.
Overall, though the public Wi-Fi in London may seem like a cool idea (and who knows, maybe everything will go well), the risks associated with such a plan are not worth taking on if you just want to give some Olympic stars wireless Internet. They would be much better off getting some Android phones with 3G and connecting to T-Mobile. I would take spotty service over a break-in any day.