The IT-savvy primary school student took less than 11 minutes to hack a public WiFi hotspot and gain access to a stranger’s laptop, as part of a new public awareness campaign by virtual private network (VPN) provider hidemyass.com to highlight how vulnerable public WiFi networks can be.
Though this hack was what’s known as ‘ethical’ - done in an controlled environment with the aim of demonstrating how easy it is to access information on other devices by hacking their public internet connection - experts say it should serve as a warning to open hotspot users. There are more than 270,000 of these in the UK, covering restaurants, hotels and other locations.
Ethical hacker Marcus Dempsey, who oversaw the exercise, said: “The results of this experiment are worrying but not entirely surprising. I know just how easily a layman can gain access to a stranger’s device, and in an age where children are often more tech-literate than adults, hacking can literally be child’s play.”
The danger of some public WiFi spots is that they do not require a username and password, and as a result are open to anyone within range.
Betsy was able to gain the knowledge to carry out the hack just by searching online using basic search terms - those behind the experiment noted that more than 11 million results where returned on Google, with almost 14,000 video tutorials showing up on YouTube.
“Adults need to get their heads around online security basics - and stick to them whenever they connect to an unsecure network,” added Mr Dempsey.
“As for children, while it’s admirable educators are focusing on skills like coding, it’s important to teach them about the dangers that lurk online, as well instilling a clear sense of the ethics - just as we did with the child that participated in this experiment. After all, as easily as one can now code a computer game, so one can fall into the dark world of hacking.”
Research alongside the experiment found that nearly two-thirds of Britons use open WiFi hotspots, with 20% doing so weekly. The survey found that sensitive data was often transferred when users logged on, with online banking and responding to emails two of the most popular habits to carry out when connected.
Cian McKenna-Charley from hidemyass.com said: “The image of cyber criminals hiding in a dark room in some far-flung part of the world is antiquated - they are just as likely to be sitting next to you in a coffee shop or public library. And if a child can perform a basic hack on a WiFi network in minutes, imagine the damage a professional criminal hacker could do.
“Just as you wouldn’t announce your online banking details at full volume in a public place, we want to remind Britons to protect their information from online eavesdroppers. Although there’s growing awareness of the data we willingly hand over when we click ‘Agree’ to join an open network, many still have no idea just how simple it is to compromise a WiFi network and steal the information of those using it.”