Magpie Tech Tips

January 10, 2017

The Not-So-Friendly Skies: Hackers Use In-Flight Wi-Fi to Access Your Laptop

Think twice before accessing the Wi-Fi network on your next flight. If your computer isn't protected, a hacker on board could steal data right off of it.

Most professionals have to travel for work, at least sometimes.  You might want to spend the flight time catching up on work.  Great opportunity, right?

But just because you’re flying thousands of feet in the air doesn’t mean you’re safe.  If a hacker is on the plane, they can use the In-Flight Wi-Fi to access your laptop.  And everyone else’s.

You may pay to access the plane’s Wi-Fi—but that doesn’t mean the network is secure.

Don’t Expect Privacy on In-Flight Wi-Fi

The provider requires passengers to buy access to the plane’s network.  Once done, that relationship is over.  The networks are open wireless LANs, meaning they have no extra data security in place. 

After agreeing to the Terms of Service, you might as well see a sign pop up:  Abandon all privacy, all ye who enter here!

How Likely is an In-Flight Hack?  Growing More Likely All the Time

Earlier this year, a USA Today reporter on a flight from Dallas wrote an article about how another passenger had hacked most of the mobile devices connected to the plane’s Wi-Fi.

While an extreme example, it means in-flight hacking DOES occur.  As more people bring mobile devices aboard planes, hackers taking advantage of passengers’ complacency grows more likely.  One hacker could use their laptop to masquerade as the Wi-Fi access point—capturing all the data other passengers transmit, unbeknownst to anyone.

How to Protect Your Computer When Traveling

Say you’re flying from SFO to Dallas, to present before Acme Corporation.  You need to work en route to complete the presentation. 

In this case, you must use the In-Flight Wi-Fi.  How do you protect your computer from a hacker?

  • Use a VPN.  Odds are your office has a VPN available.  Make use of it.  Before your next business trip, request VPN access from your IT department or advisor.
  • Turn off Sharing on your computer before using public Wi-Fi.  Laptopmag.com tells you how.
  • If you get on the Web, only go to websites with SSL certificates (they’ll show a little lock icon to the left of their URLs).
  • Don’t work with confidential data.  Presume someone is looking over your shoulder the whole time.  If you wouldn’t want someone seeing the data, wait until you land.

If you can wait, turn off Wi-Fi and do your work offline.  It’s the simplest – and safest – solution.

Got a tech question you need answered?  Please email us at woof@planetmagpie.com and we may make it our next Tech Tip.