Is your family's cybersecurity worth $20 a month?

Unlimited data plans offer convenience and cost efficiency, but also provide a level of cybersecurity that WiFi can't match

If you've been anywhere near a TV or website in the last month you'll know that every major cellular carrier has begun offering unlimited data plans. Depending on how many gigabytes are in your current plan the difference in your monthly bill could be as little as $10.  But let's call it $20 to cover a broader swath of users who are probably on a small data allocation.

This $20 per month increase in expenses is an investment in your cybersecurity and in protecting you from hackers. Why? In a word: WiFi. 

If you're anything like me you're probably constantly on the prowl for WiFi networks to log into so that you can work, listen to music, browse, shop or read. Pretty much anything you want to do on a phone, laptop or tablet requires an internet connection because it's all up there in the, you know, "cloud." Without being connected to the cloud via the internet your laptop or iPad becomes a high-tech paperweight. And there are two ways that you can connect mobile devices to the internet: through a WiFi network or a cellular network. 

Looking at the list of WiFi networks that I've logged into at one time or another is like viewing my personal history or travelogue. I've got logins from places that I haven't been to in 10 years and for places I'll probably never visit again. Not that it matters – it's just bits of data – but the implication is that I'm always looking for a WiFi connection. It's a nuisance and can be frustrating or even stress-inducing, if you get stressed out over that kind of thing.

Clearly there are some places where WiFi is the only way you're going to get connected to the internet (try using your cell phone on a ship in the middle of the Mediterranean) but for the most part cell phone service has become nearly ubiquitous. 

WiFi, while convenient to use in a home or office because it is typically fast and secure, may not be in other places where you use it. In fact, it's quite the opposite. Logging into WiFi in a hotel, airport, park or café is like an invitation to getting hacked because:

  1. You're not sure who's running that WiFi service. I'm sure you've seen the "Free WiFi" name show up in the list of available networks to log into. Who runs that service or any of the others you see listed? Is it secure? Is it a front for hackers? You don't know so logging into any of them is risky.
  2. Even if you're on a known, reliable service, there's no way to tell who else is on that same network and whether they can see what you are doing or access what's on your device. Everything I've read says that those "big name" systems are secure and that one person can't penetrate the wall between themselves and you because of network security. Call me paranoid but I'd rather not take the chance. Plus, you're sharing the WiFi connection, and thus the speed, with anyone else using it. 

Due to those risk factors I recommend that anyone using a WiFi network do so through a VPN "client." There are lots of these available for mobile devices and laptops and all of them will protect you from insecure networks by putting up a barrier between you and the network. You connect to the VPN and the VPN connects to the network. 

In short, WiFi networks can be – but often are not – fast and secure ways to connect to the internet. 

Cellular connections, on the other hand, are very fast if they are post-3G networks (4G, LTE and others that you see regularly all qualify as very fast and getting faster). More importantly, they are more secure than WiFi because of the way they work. Your data is sent and received in an encrypted format making it extremely difficult to hack. Sure, nothing is impossible but the fact is that cellular data is inherently way more secure than any public WiFi connection. 

And that's the reason that these popular unlimited data plans are a cheap investment in your cybersecurity. Using your phone's hotspot to connect your iPad to the internet is vastly more secure, a whole lot less hassle and often faster than publicly available WiFi. 

So the question becomes: Is it worth it? I think it is and suggest that it is for you, too.  If you were to get hacked as a result of using publicly available WiFi, imagine what could happen: Files and documents stolen, ransomware installed, your identity compromised and your digital life disrupted. If that happened how much would you pay to undo it? A couple hundred dollars? Thousands? More? $20 per month for this kind of personal cyber insurance is a bargain.

I just upgraded my plan to unlimited data and will be using my phone's data to connect to the internet instead of WiFi every place I can. I suggest you do the same.

Copyright © 2017 IDG Communications, Inc.

The 10 most powerful cybersecurity companies