Do you own a laptop computer? Have you taken it to an airport, coffee shop or to work and used WiFi to get on the Internet? If so, the websites you visited and most of your online activity could have been viewed and recorded by someone else. If you think I'm just trying to scare you, then look at this story that was in the news recently.
Google apologized for scooping up snippets of people's online activity from unprotected wireless networks. Google picked up fragments of emails and web addresses while its cars were photographing neighborhoods for the "Street View" feature on its mapping service over the last four years.
Most WiFi in public places is unprotected. When you enter passwords and credit card information, these processes are encrypted by individual websites. But the rest of your activity online is open for others to see. It doesn't take a super hacker to see what you're doing online, just a free program that can be downloaded from the internet.
Scott Granneman is an adjunct professor at Washington University where he teaches several technology and social networking classes. He also is co-owner of the web hosting company, Websanity, and the author of several books on computer technology. He used a program called Wireshark and showed us how you can build a profile of a person, just by seeing what they do online.
We went to Kayak's coffee shop across from Washington University and fired up a laptop with a program called, Wireshark on it. The software grabs all the wireless information going back and forth from the laptops in the business and the network router. If someone's using WiFi on their smartphone to surf the web, that information is also scooped up.
It takes a techie to sift through the packets of information sniffed out by the Wireshark program, which by the way has a legitimate use as a means to analyze and troubleshoot wireless networks. Within a few minutes we picked up the web activity of one of the customers in the coffee shop. We saw that she was watching an episode of Judge Judy on YouTube. We saw the name of the friend that she was instant messaging. We saw two email addresses that she uses. Because she was logged onto Facebook, we then saw her name and her photo. That made it easy to pick her out of the crowd. After seeing she graduated from a particular magnet high school in Chicago we did a quick google search and found her parents' names, home address and home phone number. That's just one example of what were able to see and learn about the customers in that coffee shop.
No, we didn't get private information that we could use to drain her bank account. But most people would find it a little creepy for a perfect stranger to be able to look over their shoulder at everything they're doing online and then be able to build a profile of you. I approached several people in the coffee shop to tell them what we were doing and reveal the information we'd learned about them. One of them was so freaked out that she didn't want to speak to me and left within a few minutes. The others said they were creeped out by our experiment but not surprised by the lack of privacy while online.
If you encounter a Wi-Fi network that requires you to enter a password, then it's an encrypted network and you're safe.The bad news is that's rare and there's not much you can do to protect yourself from someone who is snooping on web traffic in a coffee shop. So, if you use WiFi in a public place, be aware that someone could be watching what you're doing. Wait till you get home and use a wired internet connection to get on Facebook or any other website that reveal more about you than you're willing to share with a nosey, perfect stranger.