Security experts say that employees are increasingly exposing personal and professional information unknowingly as they log in at WiFi hot spots. Although these breaches haven't yet made big headlines, given corporate America's increasing reliance on smartphones, laptops and other portable devices, it's only a matter of time, experts say.

Ryan Crumb, director of information security for PricewaterhouseCoopers Advisory Services, has seen all sorts of information gleaned from hot spots - including Social Security numbers, corporate financial data and information about M&A deals - that was never meant for him to see. Sometimes Crumb deliberately looks to see what unprotected data is travelling over the network in public spaces.

"It's an inherent problem with being on a public space," he says.

Steps IT can take to protect data from hot-spot dangers

  • Establish and enforce strong authentication policies for devices trying to access corporate networks.
  • Require employees to use a corporate VPN (virtual private network) and encryption when making a connection and exchanging data; better still, set up employee computers so that devices automatically connect to the VPN and encrypt data after making sure the computer or device hasn't been lost or stolen.
  • Make sure all devices and software applications are configured properly and have the latest patches.
  • Ensure that corporate security policies prevent workers from transferring sensitive data to mobile devices or unauthorised computers.
  • Use air cards, which require a service plan, instead of hot spots for wireless connections.

Crumb, who works with clients to find and fix security weaknesses, says it's not hard to find such data, as it's often heading in and out of hot spots via e-mail.

"Hot spots are great for the coffee shops, but people conducting business have to understand it's their responsibility to protect themselves. They might as well be putting it on a billboard and run down the street," says CISSP Marc Noble, director of government affairs at (ISC)2, a non-profit organisation that educates and certifies information security professionals.

Most employees 'uninformed'

While many techies are aware of the risks of these so-called black holes and what it takes to minimise them, security leaders say the average worker isn't as well informed, leaving valuable data vulnerable.

"It's a hard challenge to fix, because users want to be mobile. They want to use any device to get to their spreadsheets or their presentations at these hot spots," Crumb says. "But all it takes is one vulnerable laptop to tarnish a whole company. All it takes is one misconfigured machine."

Crumb, like others, says it's not any particular computing device that presents the problem. Rather, he says, it's a combination of factors that makes hot spots problematic for data protection.

One problem is the hot spot itself, and Crumb says it's not just the wireless ones but even wired Internet connections that can be danger zones.

"The danger is the public access point. The risk is being on someone's network that you don't control," he explains. "When you're on a public network, it's like being on the Internet without being protected. You don't know who your neighbour is."

Unencrypted information going over these public networks can be seen by those who know how to look, Crumb says. Moreover, he says, laptops, smartphones and PDAs can talk to one another at these hot spots, even when users aren't necessarily looking to do so.

"Anytime you share your network with someone else, your machines can share with each other, then you have this risk of being able to intercept anybody's information," Crumb says.