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Connecting to Public Wi-Fi Hotspots Securely

Why should I encrypt my devices?

Security breaches can cause a lot of wasted time, money, and stress, and can harm the university’s reputation. But, in the event that your device is misplaced, lost or stolen, encrypted data will be unreadable without a password.

Devices are replaceable; personal or private information is not.

Concerned about travelling with an encrypted mobile device?


Keep devices safe during travel

Can I travel with an electronic device?

These days, it is very common for people to travel abroad with electronic devices such as laptops, tablets, cell phones, USB drives, and other digital storage devices. If you are traveling with an electronic device, you may have to deal with border officials at some point.

Some foreign governments retain the right to seize travelers’ electronic devices and review their contents. At border controls, officers have widespread powers to stop and search people, and examine their baggage and other possessions including devices such as laptops and smartphones.

Before embarking on international travel with an electronic device, review the information below to ensure that your trip goes smoothly.

12,000 laptops are lost every week in US airports

Los Angeles (LAX) and Miami International airports have the highest frequency of lost or stolen laptops. 1

54% of business travelers say their laptops contain confidential information

However, 65% of these travelers admit they do not take steps to protect or secure the information contained on their laptop. 1

1Both statistics from http://www.dell.com

1I am travelling with an electronic device I use for work, what do I need to know?

While crossing borders inevitably heightens privacy and security risks, you can manage these risks within reasonable limits by complying with the following requirements, which have been issued by the UBC Chief Information Officer (CIO) in consultation with the Office of the University Counsel:

  • UBC has issued an Information Security Guideline that states: “If asked by an official to unlock a device or provide a password, UBC employees should advise the official that the device contains confidential University information. If the official persists, the employee may comply with the demand. In such cases, the employee should make reasonable efforts to keep the device in sight at all times, and should change passwords and report such access to UBC Information Security as soon as possible.” Read more in Section 11 of the Considerations for International Travel with Mobile Devices document [PDF].
  • UBC’s Information Security Standard #05 (Encryption Requirements), and provincial privacy law, requires all mobile devices, including smartphones, to be encrypted if they contain any confidential information. If your device has not been encrypted, please ask your IT support team for assistance. Read more in section 7 on the Encryption Requirements document [PDF].
  • UBC’s Information Security Standard #06 (Working Remotely) discourages storing confidential information on mobile devices; it’s preferable – where feasible – to leave the information on a UBC server and then remotely access it through a secure connection. Should you choose to travel without your laptop or other device, IT staff can provide loaner laptops or devices thus reducing the amount of data carried with you. Read more in Section 4 of the Working Remotely document

Before your trip:

  1. If the devices you want to take contain large amounts of UBC confidential/sensitive information, consider leaving them behind
  2. Put the files you won’t need on secure UBC storage solutions and remove them from your device
  3. Check the most recent guidelines for the country you are visiting – not all countries allow encryption and some have restrictions on portable electronic devices in your carry-on baggage

Recently, the US and UK have increased security measures on electronic devices for incoming flights. Travelers on flights coming from several countries will face restrictions on large electronic devices, including, but not restricted to, over-sized smartphones, tablets, e-readers, game consoles and laptops.

2Will the laptop ban in the US and the UK affect me?

Certain commercial flights arriving in the United States and the United Kingdom are now subject to restrictions for carry-on electronic devices.

If you are travelling from any of the affected countries below, it is very likely that you will be impacted by the electronic device ban. To ensure that you are following the most up-to-date guidelines, please refer to the Commercial flights to the US Fact Sheet and the Commercial flights to the UK Overview.

Impacted International Flights bound for the US or UK originate from airports in the following countries:

CountryTravel to US affected?Travel to UK affected?
Saudi ArabiaYESYES
United Arab EmiratesYESNO

If you have to travel with your electronic device in a checked bag, put it in a hard-shell case and bury it in the middle of your suitcase. If the device stores personal information, make sure it is encrypted. It is recommended to get a TSA-Approved lock to protect from theft. If possible, take an alternative inexpensive laptop or tablet instead and keep sensitive documents on an encrypted USB and not on the device.

If you choose to only travel with a standard sized smartphone in order to ensure that you can take it in the cabin with you, please be aware that it must be encrypted if it stores any information – including emails – which contain personal information. You are still also at risk for search by border officials and you should be prepared to deal with this if necessary. See ‘Do I have to show my mobile device to a security officer if there is private information on it?’ for more information.

If you are travelling with an encrypted device, special considerations may apply. View the Canadian export and foreign import controls on encryption products on the Security Considerations for International Travel with Mobile Devices document.

3Do I have to show my mobile device to a security officer if there is private information on it?

In some cases, border control officers may ask to examine what is stored within a device, such as photos, files, downloaded e-mails and other media. If you refuse to provide your password, your device may be held for further inspection.

If the device contains work-related personal information, UBC employees should first notify the official that the device contains confidential university information..

If the official is persistent, employees may comply with the demand. However, they should make a reasonable effort to keep the device in sight at all times. After the device is returned, change the password and report the incident to our Information Security ([email protected]) as soon as possible.



You can access Wi-Fi hotspots almost anywhere these days. While it’s a convenient way to connect to the internet (often for free), it’s not as safe as you may think. You may not know who set it up, how secure it is, or who else is connecting to it. There are significant security risks when connecting to an unknown Wi-Fi hotspot. It’s relatively easy, for example, for a malicious actor to see everything you type and every site you visit on an unsecured network.

Where you can’t use your phone’s internet connection instead, there are some simple things to consider and steps you can take to protect your data and personal details when accessing a publicly available Wi-Fi hotspot.

Check Whether You Can You Trust the Provider

While no publicly accessible Wi-Fi network is entirely secure when you do use them, try to stick to well-known networks (for instance, those provided by the store or coffee shop you’re in). Ask yourself why someone would provide a free service and whether they might have a nefarious reason for doing so.

Some hackers use hotspot names that are similar to the names of the location you’re in use. If unsure, ask an employee for the name of the hotspot that they provide.

Don’t automatically connect to any available free hotspots – in fact, it’s good practice to disable this feature on your phone or other devices. For instance, some devices can join other unencrypted wireless networks without your intervention and transfer information; it’s a good idea to close apps you’re not using and/or limit their ability to go online in the background.

Try Not to Access Sensitive Information While Browsing

Even where a trusted source provides a Wi-Fi hotspot, some forms of attack (called ‘man in the middle’) can eavesdrop on your online activity by intercepting data between your computer and the hotspot’s router. The best way to protect yourself against this attack is to use websites that implement encrypted communication (which are labelled HTTPS rather than HTTP). You can also use a Virtual Private Network (VPN) which does the same thing for all your communications (see below).

The best thing to do is assume that someone is listening to (or watching) your web browsing and limit the browsing you do so that it does not include providing personal or sensitive information such as your email address or phone number. In particular, do not conduct tasks like electronic banking or making purchases online through an insecure network as your financial details could be stolen.

Turn Off File Sharing Options and Avoid Downloads

You should disable features on your device that enable easy file-sharing, printer, or network access (such as Airdrop). This ensures that no-one can access your files or send files you don’t want to your device. You should also avoid sending any files that you don’t want anyone else to have access to. As stated above, the best thing is to assume that someone can see these files. Also, don’t download files or install applications or apps when using a hotspot unless it’s necessary.

Using a VPN

If you deal with sensitive information and need to access Wi-Fi regularly (such as when traveling), then the best option is to use a VPN service. VPNs encrypt all data traveling to and from your device through a secure server, and they make it almost impossible to intercept and read your data. While this is best practice for business users and others that deal with sensitive information, it’s probably not a practical option (and not free) for the average user who wants to use a Wi-Fi hotspot from time to time.

The next-generation Wi-Fi security protocol (WPA3) will include built-in security protections for accessing networks through wireless hotspots. Until then, keep the above points in mind when accessing an unknown Wi-Fi network to ensure your security.

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