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Cellular is a popular internet connection alternative. As with any connection it's important to understand the security ramifications and tradeoffs.

I recently upgraded to a Blackberry with "National Broadband Access". I can now connect my Blackberry to my laptop and get internet access almost anywhere. The salesperson said it will be more secure to use, even in places that offer WiFi. Is it more secure?

Yes.

That's not to say that there aren't risks (and even costs) involved, but by-and-large, data connectivity through the cellular network is, as a practical matter, more secure than open WiFi.

In part, though, that's really a reflection of just how insecure open WiFi really is.

The difference, from a security point of view, is simply this: anyone with a WiFi enabled computer has what they need to be a hacker. There's no special equipment needed, and the software required is free, open source and easily available for download. It's even above board, as there are many legitimate uses for this kind of sniffing software.

The result is that anyone can use almost any laptop to sit in a corner of an open WiFi hotspot and sniff the traffic.

With cellular based systems such as that used with your Blackberry, the situation isn't nearly as simple. The biggest obstacle is that you need additional special equipment to start sniffing. You'll also need to be able to decrypt the data as it is encrypted.

"... anyone can use almost any laptop to sit in a corner of an open WiFi hotspot and sniff the traffic."

Now, neither of those are particularly difficult. I'm sure that the hardware needed is available on the internet (isn't everything?). The encryption isn't particularly secure either, having been developed many years ago when cellular phones didn't have the computational horsepower necessary for today's more secure alternatives.

In other words, it takes some extra steps and expenses to start hacking the cellular network, but it's possible.

However, given the ubiquity of open WiFi, the fact that you don't need special equipment, and the general lack of security employed by most people sitting in that hotspot, the open WiFi scenario is simply a much, much bigger and easier target to go after.

Now if you, specifically, are being targeted - say as part of some corporate espionage - perhaps it becomes worth it for the hacker to invest in that additional technology. But if you're just an average user, cellular, coupled with a firewall and generally good internet behavior on your part, gets you all the security you typically need.

I mentioned costs above, and there are several tradeoffs to be aware of.

  • You're paying extra, monthly, for that data plan on your Blackberry. You could, instead, pay extra, perhaps even less, to a service such as HotSpotVPN to be secure in those open WiFi hotspots. This would actually be more secure than either WiFi alone or cellular, and you could even use the service over your cellular connection should you feel the need. (If you're sufficiently geeky, there are also free alternatives that are typically more cumbersome to set up and use.)

  • You may pay a price in speed. My experience is that cellular broadband is almost always slower than WiFi. Granted, that really depends a lot on where you are with cellular and what your provider provides, as well as how big an internet connection that WiFi access point is connected to and how many other people are using it while you do. But as I said, in my experience speed tends to favor the WiFi alternatives.

  • You may pay a price in location. With WiFi you need to locate a hotspot. Yep, it seems like they're everywhere, and more are appearing every day. With cellular, however, as long as you're in range of a cell tower, you have connectivity.

And on a final note, lest you think that plugging into a wall socket for hardwired ethernet connectivity, let me remind you that Wired connections can also be as dangerous as wifi. Often overlooked, wired connections, particularly in hotels, share almost all the risks of open Wifi hotspots.

Article C3349 - April 13, 2008 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

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5 Comments
Al Kubeluis
April 14, 2008 4:47 AM

Excellent article, Leo, especially the reminder about wired insecurity in a hotel or other public place. Thanks again.

Scott
April 19, 2008 3:54 PM

Have you had any experience with the free, add-supported VPN Hotspot Shield by AnchorFree?
http://www.anchorfree.com/downloads/hotspot-shield/

Jack Dial
April 24, 2008 6:54 PM

Excellent explanation with details. I would have guessed cellular broadband was faster though. This is good information to know in my travels.

Paul
July 4, 2009 12:26 AM

Leo, How about a little help. What if your cell phone was the broadband connection instead of your laptop. Then you wouldn't care whether you were in a WiFi spot or not. Hopefully the cell phone would provide a secure connection. That's what Bizzirk Mobile (Parent company - Unified Technologies Group)is touting. So what's the true story? They claim to have an unlimited everything wireless service that gives the subscriber internet access, unlimited, voice, text, and true unlimited data cellular in the 2100 Mhz broadband range. Is this real? Any light you can shed on the subject would be appreciated. Thanks.

I can't comment on the specific product offering, as I'm not familiar with it, however: yes, in general cellular is more secure than an open WiFi hotspot. While theoretically sniff-able, it takes expertise and equipment most folks don't have, so with WiFi being cheap and easy to sniff they focus on that. The catch is cost - depending on your cell provider there may be additional costs involved - and speed - cell typically isn't as fast as a WiFi hotspot, though it can be. Truth is I travel with a cellular modem and typically use it.
- Leo
04-Jul-2009

Eli Coten
May 23, 2011 7:35 AM

I once saw on BBC Click a feature about a German hackers group who setup their own cellular network for experimental purposes because of the severe legal consequences for hacking the commercial cellular network. I believe they succeeded in proving that it's not difficult to hack it.

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