Sharon and I used to catch up on some movies or read a book when on a plane but now we’re more likely working on our laptops. With Wi-Fi service available on most flights, being in the air is no longer an excuse for not getting an article finished on time.
While I wouldn’t think about logging into a public Wi-Fi network in a Starbucks, airport lounge or hotel without a VPN, I’ve logged into multiple airplanes’ Wi-Fi networks and worked like I was at home. I mean, I had to pay to get access so it must be safe, right? Nope!
Turns out that the Wi-Fi networks on planes aren’t any more private than other public Wi-Fi networks. Just because you’re in the air doesn’t mean that your data can’t be stolen. The only caveat is that the data thief has to be on the same flight.
The vulnerability of airborne Wi-Fi networks was brought to light when a reporter’s emails were hacked during a flight by the passenger sitting in the row behind him. The resulting story in USA Today showed everyone that airplane Wi-Fi networks aren’t secure. A Gogo representative (The Wi-Fi provider for the flight) confirmed the fact.
In fact, as Steve Nolan, Gogo’s vice president of communications, told me, the service is “public” and “operates in the same ways as most open Wi-Fi hotspots on the ground.” He cautioned against “accessing sensitive materials while in flight.”
That was 2016, and things haven’t changed much since.
Great. What if you have to get work done on a flight, but you need to make sure your data is secure? What should you do?
Fortunately, the tips to protect yourself in the air are the same as what you’d do when on the ground. I found an article with “7 Ways to Avoid Getting Hacked Via Public In-Flight Wi-Fi,” and the tips are solid.
One of the tips is to make sure you’re using a VPN when on a public network, including those on airplanes. I’ve had problems in the past with getting kicked off airplane Wi-Fi networks when turning on my VPN. I’m happy to say that I’ve been able to solve the problem by enabling my VPN’s stealth mode. For TunnelBear, it’s called GhostBear and most VPNs have a similar setting.
The other way to keep your data safe when on a plane is to invest in a privacy screen. Without it, the person in the seat next to you, behind you or just the person who is walking back from the lavatory, can read everything you’re working on. No matter how secure your laptop’s encryption is, it doesn’t matter if anyone can look at your screen and see what you’re working on.
Don’t get lulled into a false sense of security when on a plane. You have no idea who is on your flight and just because you’re up in the air doesn’t mean you’re safe from hackers.
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