The introduction of public Wi-Fi hotspots was a welcome advancement that changed how we work and play. It meant that no matter where we were or how we got there- café, hotel, airport, train, plane or automobile-we were no longer cut off from the latest financial spreadsheet YouTube video, or Netflix movie. Unfortunately, over the years a danger has emerged regarding the use of public Wi-Fi, cyberattacks! These have led many businesses to restrict or eliminate its use in employee laptops.

The cyber risks posed by public Wi-Fi hotspots are well documented:

  • Unsecured or unencrypted hotspots open the door to cyber attackers who can easily steal credentials, intercept communications, or infect devices with malicious code.
  • Laptops and other devices that use Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) can extend security from an enterprise's private network to the hotspot, but the Wi-Fi hotspot itself is still vulnerable, which means the laptop or another device, as well as ultimately the enterprise's VPN itself, can still be compromised.
  • Even the latest solution for secure mobile connectivity, creating a personal Wi-Fi hotspot using a cellular-connected smartphone or tablet, is vulnerable; while the mobile device's cellular connection is secure, the connection from the laptop to the Wi-Fi hotspot may still be subject to attack.

The biggest problem Wi-Fi users face is that even being near a public Wi-Fi hotspot can be dangerous if their mobile device's Wi-Fi connection is turned on, even if the device is not connected to the hotspot! Using inexpensive hardware and software tools, attackers can compromise these devices to sniff or intercept traffic, spread malware, or gain access to email, instant messages, or VoIP conversations.

In response to these risks, businesses are increasingly restricting public Wi-Fi hotspot usage by their employees.  A survey conducted by independent market research firm Vanson Bourne found that nearly 70 percent of responding organizations in France, Germany, the UK, and the U.S.said they forbid mobile workers from using free Wi-Fi hotspots some or all the time. Another 15 percent said they planned to do so in the future.  Beyond that, some employers, particularly in financial services and other highly regulated industries, require employees to use more secure laptops- or even ban the use of laptops entirely- when traveling.

The secure cellular solution

A substantially more secure alternative to using Wi-Fi hotspots is to equip laptops with cellular connectivity instead.  Carriers must agree to comply with government laws and regulations regarding customer confidentiality in order to operate cellular networks. Additionally, most cellular contracts include a requirement for the carrier to provide customers with a secure network. Given these regulations and contractual obligations, mobile operators have built their cellular networks to be as secure as possible, with multiple layers of defense.

Cellular network connections have these desirable security characteristics:

  • Every device logging onto a cellular network must identify itself and be authorized to join the network.
  • Every data transmission is encrypted, making any intercepted data unreadable.
  • Cryptographic operations, secure authentication protocols, and built-in algorithms protect the air gaps between laptops and base stations and between the base stations and security-enabled gateways - the entire communication loop is protected.

In addition to these carrier cybersecurity defenses, enterprises can also implement defenses of their own with cellular-connected laptops. Technologies now exist that enable enterprise customers to monitor cellular connections to their networks, allowing them to screen connections for compliance with established security policies.

Another advantage is that cellular services are now easier to use and more cost-effective than ever. Cellular providers are now offering short-term access to their networks (hourly, daily, weekly, monthly, etc.), giving enterprises new internet access strategies that don't rely on Wi-Fi. These include pay-per-use data rates, which help low-volume users, and unlimited LTE access for set blocks of time, which helps users who occasionally need to download large files or stream media. Microsoft's new pay-as-you-go cellular data plans for Windows 10 devices enables traveling employees to have the access they need, when they need it, without requiring a company to commit to a long-term contract with a single carrier.

The worldwide availability of cellular connectivity now gives mobile workers access to cellular networks just about anywhere they travel, and evolving regulations are making this even easier. In the EU, for example, residents can now travel freely across country borders without incurring the steep roaming charges they once faced. This is hugely beneficial for businesses who want their employees to use cellular instead of Wi-Fi for laptop data connectivity.

When you consider the high financial and reputational damage caused by hacks, ransomware, and other cyberattacks, it's no surprise that companies today rank cyber threats their second biggest concern. Switching to cellular-equipped laptops allows businesses to make their organizations more secure while increasing employee productivity with fast, global wireless connectivity.