airplane wi-fi networkFlying isn’t what it used to be in many ways, especially when it comes to technology. Not only can passengers today use their electronic devices throughout the entire flight, but many airplanes now come with Wi-Fi networks so travelers can stay connected from 30,000+ feet above the ground. We’ve talked about public Wi-Fi networks and how risky they can be, but while you might think twice about connecting to the free Wi-Fi in your local Starbucks, you might not give the same consideration to Internet access on board your next flight. Although it would seem that the network on an airplane would carry a lower security risk than a network on the ground, you’d be surprised how easy it is for airplane Wi-Fi to put your personal data at risk.

What makes airplane Wi-Fi risky?

In recent years, airlines have been expanding the access of Wi-Fi on airplanes to allow customers the option to stay connected through the duration of their flight. Though these networks can sometimes be slow and unpredictable, the fact that it’s possible to be online while they’re in the sky is a valuable option for travelers, especially those flying for business purposes who might need to get work done on the plane. Wi-Fi on airplanes is almost never free, costing between $2 and $49 depending on what type of device you’re using and your flight details. In a time when we’re all connected through our phones, tablets and laptops round the clock, shelling out a little extra money to maintain that connection is worth it for many people — not to mention the sheer marvel of being able to post to Instagram or message a loved one from the air. Although the option to connect is a great thing to have, unfortunately, airplane Wi-Fi networks are just as vulnerable as any other unsecured public Wi-Fi network.

Earlier this year, a USA Today reporter wrote about his experience being hacked during a commercial flight. He discovered it had happened when the hacker in question — who had performed the action to prove how insecure airplane Wi-Fi is — told him about it and detailed his online activity throughout the flight, but for the most part, someone hijacking an on board network isn’t going to broadcast that fact. Although the in-flight Wi-Fi offered by companies like GoGo uses encryption during the transaction process when users pay for access, it doesn’t offer encryption the rest of the time. And it’s just as easy for someone to set up a fake network that spoofs the real network in hopes that unwary travelers will connect to it instead, allowing them unfettered access to those devices.

How can I use Wi-Fi on a flight safely?

Utilizing an Internet security program can be helpful, especially when it comes to ensuring features like file-sharing are disabled and you’ve got a strong firewall in place. That said, at this point in time, your best option is to use a Virtual Private Network (VPN), if you have access to a one through your company or you’ve purchased one for your own personal use. Since these networks create a secure, private network for you to use while you’re connected to a public network, this is the safest bet if you choose to connect while flying — especially if you plan on doing anything that involves sensitive data, such as sending emails or accessing your online bank account. If you don’t have a VPN to use, then it’s best to avoid accessing any websites or files you’d like to keep private and simply stick to casual web browsing. Or, better yet, take advantage of a rare opportunity to disconnect from the online world and read a book, watch an in-flight movie or get some shuteye. Once you’re back on the ground, your connected world will be waiting for you.

Want to learn more about keeping your mobile devices secure while you’re on the go? Follow our mobile security blog for tips and information.