From the August 2013 issue of Investment Advisor • Subscribe!

How Secure Is Your Wireless Connection?

Wi-Fi networks make Web browsing easy, but they’re also easy ways to compromise client information

Illustration by Ellen Weinstein. Illustration by Ellen Weinstein.

I recently attended several conferences where I noticed that advisors’ adoption level of all sorts of tablet devices is doing quite well. At any given session, I noticed a fair number of advisors using tablets to take notes, check email or access websites. I began to wonder, then worry: Are we all taking the necessary steps to protect our access credentials, our passwords and, ultimately, the information we retrieve and send while using wireless connections? Did the attendees in that crowded downtown hotel even think about security and data privacy at all? The reality is that not all wireless connections share the same level of security. In fact, some don’t have any security at all. When you use wireless networks, it is important to at least understand the level of security they offer, which should have a direct influence on what information you are willing to transmit using that connection.

Some of the most secure wireless networks are offered by large communication companies like Verizon, AT&T and Sprint. Your device might already have the capabilities built into it to connect to one of these networks. Or you could purchase a small wireless modem and create your own mobile hotspot. The benefits, of course, with using the major wireless carrier networks are that you are leveraging their security infrastructure, and you have access to their support and their users’ experience. This might be most attractive to someone who is not very technology savvy or simply doesn’t want to worry about understanding the level of security of various local wireless networks at hotels and coffee shops. One of the challenges though is that the costs could get fairly expensive depending on how much data you use and your location (domestic versus international).

Perhaps the most common wireless network used by advisors while on the road is a Wi-Fi-based network. The first point to recognize is that not all Wi-Fi networks are created equal; they don’t all have the same level of security or present the same risks. It is important to make sure that your device is not set up to automatically connect to any available Wi-Fi networks. It is understandable to have this feature turned on for known, trusted networks, but not just any network available. Furthermore, Wi-Fi networks that offer some level of security and require a password to connect are always good initial signs of trustworthy networks, compared with being listed as unsecured. Generally, the password is provided by your hotel, conference host or another source. At least this tells you that not everyone and anyone can use the network. While you are using this Wi-Fi network, be sure to connect using HTTPS and SSL before accessing any private information like email and financial websites.

If you frequently use Wi-Fi networks that you don’t control (as opposed to those you do control, like at your home or office), then you should consider setting up a personal virtual private network, better known as a VPN. Essentially, a personal VPN is a shield that you activate or connect to immediately after logging onto a Wi-Fi network. You can even automate this step with many personal VPN providers. Then, everything you do through this Wi-Fi network—review email, access websites—is transmitted using the encryption technology of the personal VPN. Examples of personal VPN providers include Hotspot Shield, GoTrusted VPN and Cloak. Each of these providers offers different pricing plans and also generally makes available a trial period for testing their product. This is important because you want to make sure that you understand how to use their product as well as determine that the performance and overall speed is acceptable.

For firms that have a number of employees using wireless connections, you need to make sure that your policies and procedures are very clear regarding how your staff may or may not use them, especially when they are traveling or on vacation. It is very easy for an uninformed employee to think, “I’ll just log in and check my email and a couple of account balances” while having a coffee at an Internet café. They might never realize the risk that they are taking or the steps they could follow to minimize it. The fact is your employees now have access to more business information while away from the office than ever before. Don’t make the assumption that they understand when it is a good or bad idea to use a wireless connection to access information.

In the end, there are technology steps that you can take in addition to common sense decisions to protect your credentials and information while using a wireless connection. Awareness is where this begins. Understand the type of wireless connection that you are using, and let the security level of that connection determine what you are willing to do while on that network. There are never any guarantees, but you can dramatically reduce the chances of your information and data being compromised.

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