Warnings about Wifi-enabled air travel

I have been on a few planes in the past couple of weeks that are Wifi-enabled. American has created an entirely new opportunity for identity thieves here, and while the opportunity to surf and email at 30,000 feet is tempting, count me out for those that will become frequent users.

The problem is that most people get lost in the wonderfulness of the Web and tend to forget that their seatmates can watch every move, see every keystroke (it doesn’t take much to follow along, especially at the speed that many people type), and collect all sorts of information. By the end of one flight I was on, I had Larry (not his real name) the HP sales rep’s Amazon account, read several of his emails, got to see his new sales presentations that HP corporate sales office had sent him, figured out that he was a recent hire as he was checking HP’s Intranet to understand some corporate travel policies, found out who his clients that he had just visited were, and more.

Now, I wasn’t really paying that much attention. I was tired, and just wanted to be left by myself for the trip. And I think we exchanged maybe ten words between us all told. But if I really wanted to do some damage, I could be all over Larry’s accounts by now (he had some nice taste from what I could see he was looking for on Amazon, too).

Yes, people have been using laptops on planes for years. I used to do it all the time, back when the middle seat was rarely occupied and you didn’t have to almost disrobe to get to the gate. But those days are almost as much part of history as calling the people that worked on planes stews. The difference is now that we have Internet piped directly to the seat, people are free to go anywhere and everywhere, and where they go are places that are critical to their life. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone was doing their online banking in-flight.

So people, if you are going online up in the air, get a privacy filter for your laptop so that no one else can see your screen. They cost about $30. This isn’t complex technology: it has been available almost as long as Windows has been around. And while you are at it, dim your screens to save on power anyway (Larry had one of those nifty power-packs to boost his battery, too). Or better yet: don’t work on anything important on a crowded plane – and these days, what other kinds of planes are there? Bring a book or watch a movie if you must be immersed in your electronic cocoon.

I am reminded of a story from my early days as a reporter for PC Week, back in the late 1980s. We were very scoop-oriented, and would always try to get information from the vendors through all sorts of means, some of them probably unethical or at least uncomfortable in the light of the present day. One of our reporters was having dinner with her boyfriend (now husband) at a quaint and cozy Cambridge Mass. restaurant, and overhead two businessmen at the next table gossiping about work. What was unusual was they were speaking rapid German, and both were working for Lotus Development, at the time a powerhouse spreadsheet player. They were in town to discuss the company’s future product plans. Trouble was, my colleague spoke German fluently, and got a couple of scoops that were published the next week in the paper. No one knew who the source of the leak was.

Remember loose lips sink ships, the World War 2 posters put up by the government? We need something similar on Wifi-enabled planes. Be careful out there people. You never know whom you are sitting next to.


18 thoughts on “Warnings about Wifi-enabled air travel

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  7. Blue lips sink ships

    When I worked for a large defense firm we had a saying – “blue lips sink ships.”

    Which meant: sucking up to the boss usually meant all the blood was forced from your lips, so they turned blue. And sucking up to the boss turned you into a “yes” person who rarely disagreed, hence you didn’t propose original ideas and innovation dies.

    And an organization without original ideas is ultimately doomed.

  8. David, great post and great illustrations of what inattention to information security can do. I just wrote a blog entry about incidents like this which I call – CLMs or Career Limiting Moves. http://www.thommitchell.com/2010/03/15/clms-the-sequel/

    Couldn’t agree more about laptop use while airborne. While wifi availability is cool and compelling, I can’t imagine working on confidential client information while on the plane – too many people are simply to close to your screen even with privacy filters. I use airplane time to catch up on reading and thinking.

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  11. It’s not only what’s on the screen that can be a issue. User ids and passwords can be easily sniffed from an unsecured wifi connection.

    Most wifi providers don’t understand the technology behind wifi let alone care about the security issues. The more secure way to go on to the Internet while travelling is to use mobile broadband.

  12. Another thing that may help with security is a screen overlay that only allows for viewing of your screen from directly in front, so that those sitting beside you can’t get a look without really straining to do so.

  13. I really enjoyed reading your article. It really made me think and provoked me to look at the situation from a different angle. Excellent information. I look forward to reading more posts from you.

  14. I never thought of that. It would be so easy to get ripped off this way. I’ve never heard of a privacy filter until now so I will check it out for sure. 🙂 Thx

  15. There is still something very special about taking a technology break. Do we eally have to have access to the Internet when we are on an airplane? Is it worth the price of risking private info from getting into the wrong hands? In my opinion, let’s just relax and breathe in and out enjoying the conversation of a neighbor or a good book.

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