By Steve McCaskill
Nearly half (47 percent) of British organizations ban their employees from using free WiFi hotspots because of the associated security risks, according to research conducted by iPass, a figure which rises to 62 percent across the United Kingdom, United States, France and Germany.
It is expected that the number of public hotspots in the United Kingdom will rise to 14 million by 2018, as more retailers, local authorities and other businesses add connectivity, while BT and other providers continue their rollout of access points.
While many of these public access points have security safeguards in place, many are unprotected or susceptible to vulnerabilities that could see hackers steal personal or corporate information, or gain access to a device.
Free WiFi, more problems
Free WiFi might be seen as a good thing by consumers and employees, but 94 percent of respondents from the United Kingdom, United States, Germany and France saw free hotspots as a security risk and 20 percent of firms that haven't already banned their use have the intention of doing so.
However, while 37 percent believe free WiFi to be the "biggest" threat to a mobile workforce, 36 percent said their own employees were the greatest fear and 27 said the devices themselves posed the most serious risk.
"WiFi is a disruptive technology that has changed the way people work, but in recent times it has also introduced formidable mobile security concerns," said Keith Waldorf, vice president of engineering at iPass. "Being connected is the basic requirement of every mobile worker. However, with increasing numbers of businesses falling afoul to security breaches, the number of organizations expressing a concern about mobile security is high.
"The use of free and insecure WiFi hotspots in particular is a growing concern, as organizations balance the need for low-cost and convenient connectivity against the potential threat posed by hackers."
Safe mobile use
Nine-tenths of respondents said they were concerned about the challenges of a mobile workforce and 88 percent admitted they struggled to regularly enforce a safe use policy. Many use VPNs in an attempt to improve matters, but only a quarter had faith their employees would use these all the time when accessing sensitive assets.
However, just as IT departments have been accused in the past of just banning things rather than working around them, iPass said the outright prohibition of free WiFi was too severe. After all, the rise of mobile device management (MDM) and Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policies means the days of corporately-imposed mobile phones are long gone.
"The fact is, mobile workers will seek out free WiFi connectivity for its convenience, despite its security flaws," added Waldorf. "Simply banning access to free WiFi hotspots is a heavy-handed approach and is not the solution. In today's 'WiFi-first' world, it is imperative that organizations educate their mobile workers about the dangers of insecure free WiFi, and equip them with the requisite tools to access a secure internet connection and remain productive."
iPass does not own any hotspots itself and instead agrees to partnerships with various providers to offer businesses a single log-in and billing service that promises to make it easier and cheaper to use wireless Internet services around the world.
Last year, it integrated Devicescape's 20 million curated access points into its network, bringing its total footprint to 50 million, or two thirds of the world's public hotspots.