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Report Shows Most Organizations Ban Workers from Free Wi-Fi Hotspots

April 20, 2016

Let’s face it, the power of FREE is akin to the proverbial moth being drawn to the candle.  We simply can’t resist checking free things out, and like to use them whenever possible for obvious reasons.  The old saying “the best things in life are free,” has its applicability when it comes to many aspects of our lives. However, in a connected world, where free Wi-Fi access is becoming almost ubiquitous, such is not the case.  In fact, despite repeated warnings, using free unsecure public Wi-Fi hotspots is an open invitation to disaster. 

The issues with free Wi-Fi hotspots are not new. While we are all on our own as hopefully educated consumers when we are in personal mode when it comes to exercising our smart device default to Wi-Fi when out and about, enterprise IT departments are very concerned that their mobile workers should not connect when they are on company time.  This raises the interesting question as to how concerned IT is about this given hacker delight in exploiting this exposed plane of vulnerability to obtain access to what should be protected digital assets and information. 

iPass, arguably the world’s largest provider of mobile connectivity through its software-as-a-service (SaaS) platform, with more than 50 million hotspots in more than 120 countries, wanted to gauge enterprise concerns about all of this. iPass commissioned independent market research company Vanson Bourne during March 2016. They sampled 500 CIO and IT decision makers from the U.S. (200), U.K. (100), Germany (100) and France (100). The results, published in the recently released iPass Mobile Security Report, show a level of concern that is significant to say the least. 

This is a case of good news and bad.  The good news is the survey found that 62 percent of organizations are banning mobile workers from using free Wi-Fi hotspots. Plus, 20 percent of organizations stated they are planning to enforce bans in the future.  In fact, a whopping 94 percent of respondents said they see free Wi-Fi hotspots as a significant mobile security threat, and 92 percent said they were concerned about the security challenges posed by a growing mobile workforce in general.  Realities are that they should be.

 “Wi-Fi is a disruptive technology that has changed the way people work, but in recent times it has also introduced formidable mobile security concerns,” said Keith Waldorf, VP Engineering at iPass. “Being connected is the basic requirement of every mobile worker. However, with increasing numbers of businesses falling afoul to security breaches, the number of organizations expressing a concern about mobile security is high. The use of free and insecure Wi-Fi hotspots in particular is a growing concern, as organizations balance the need for low-cost and convenient connectivity against the potential threat posed by hackers.”

Views you can use

A couple of findings from the report are worth citing. For example, when asked to identify their biggest mobile security threat responses were as follows:

  • 37 percent  said it was free Wi-Fi hotspot
  • 27 percent cited their own employees’ lack of attention to security

The report also notes that getting the situation under control is no easy matter. It is reflected in the results that 88 percent of respondents said they are struggling to consistently enforce a safe mobile usage policy. On top of this, while most organizations as a form of protection have policies that mobile workers connect over encrypted VPNs to remotely access corporate data and systems, only 26 percent felt they are fully confident that mobile workers access enterprise systems via a VPN at all times.

Additional highlights categorized by geographic region, include:

  • U.K. organizations were the most lenient when it comes to banning the use of free Wi-Fi hotspots; nearly half (47 percent) stated they don’t actively prohibit their employees from using them.
  • In the U.K. (64 percent) and Germany (38 percent), employees were seen as the biggest mobile security threat.
  • In the U.S. (53 percent) and France (36 percent), insecure Wi-Fi hotspots were seen as the biggest mobile security threat.
  • 94 percent of French organizations said they struggled to consistently enforce a safe mobile usage policy.
  • Only 21 percent of U.S. organizations were fully confident their mobile workers always use its corporate VPN.

“The fact is, mobile workers will seek out free Wi-Fi connectivity for its convenience, despite its security flaws,” continued Waldorf. “Simply banning access to free Wi-Fi hotspots is a heavy-handed approach and is not the solution. In today’s ‘Wi-Fi’-first’ world, it is imperative that organizations educate their mobile workers about the dangers of insecure free Wi-Fi, and equip them with the requisite tools to access a secure internet connection and remain productive.”

In short, because of the vulnerabilities of using free Wi-Fi hotspots you do not want to get what you don’t pay for.  We live in what should be a trust and permission-based world. As Waldorf observed having the right tools and enforcing their use is key, along with having security first as part of organizational DNA.  Our smart devices may look to Wi-Fi first, but as the iPass report illuminates, not all Wi-Fi is created equal and trust but verify the network security of connections has to be the frontline of not jus corporate but personal defense. 

Edited by Maurice Nagle

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