The Olympic year has begun with O2 promising to provide free Wi-Fi in London during the games. The deal includes the installation and roll out across Westminster, Kensington and Chelsea of “the largest free wireless hub in Europe”. The network will be open to the public including tourists and local residents.

Industry experts have already voiced their concerns on whether the free network’s capacity will be able to handle the traffic. However, sending and receiving data through the ether could also leave valuable information exposed.

Popular demand

Reports have focused on the benefits to visitors and overseas tourists anticipated to descend on the capital this summer, but what are the risks?

Councillor Philippa Roe, cabinet member for strategic finance at Westminster City Council, has predicted how this service will facilitate the sharing of photos and updates via social media during the Olympic Games. Without a doubt there is a huge demand for this type of service, but instant sharing will require users to input usernames and passwords at the very least.

Automatic connectivity

O2 Business Development Director Tim Sefton confirmed that accessing the free Wi-Fi will require a sign-on process, but will become auto-provisioned for all O2 customers by the end of 2012. Users connecting via smartphone, tablet or laptop must remember to verify any Wi-Fi connections their devices detect.

Criminals are known to exploit free Wi-Fi hotspots by establishing a rogue network nearby and disguising it as a legitimate sounding connection. It’s important to remember that these snooping tactics can be used to obtain valuable information about individuals and their company’s activity as well as to commit identity theft and fraud.

Site or service encryption, otherwise known as HTTPS or SSL, offers a layer of security when the legitimacy of free public Wi-Fi can’t be guaranteed. Some sites, like Google, Twitter and Facebook give the user the option to remain in HTTPS at all times, however it shouldn’t be assumed a site is secure just because of its popularity.

A collaborative exercise

Areas such as Westminster will also attract business users who are keen to fully embrace mobile working and Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) schemes. Efforts to raise awareness of employee responsibilities when handling sensitive information should be initiated to complement this free service.

This will ensure users are not lulled into a false sense of security when connecting through O2’s network and remind them to connect via an approved Virtual Private Network (VPN) when using mobile devices.

This rollout demonstrates just how much the global population now rely on being connected wherever they are and will no doubt enhance the Olympic experience that London promises to offer. However, the benefits and convenience must not outweigh the need to protect information when using free public Wi-Fi networks.