Tech traveller: Surfing at 36,000 feet

Wi-fi took off years ago but if you join the Mile High (surf) club, you still need to be aware of the security risks, and sky-high costs attached

By Kate Russell
Published 30 May 2017, 16:00 BST, Updated 8 Jul 2021, 15:18 BST
Photograph by Getty Images

In-flight wi-fi has been available for a little over 10 years, but is it worth the inflated connection charges imposed by most carriers? The first issue is safety. I've spoken before about the danger of using public wi-fi hotspots, and these warnings go double for in-flight connections.

Without password protection (paid services direct you to a registration and payment website after connecting), there's no privacy for the raw traffic carried across the network. That means anyone intent on reading your data, including personal details entered in online forms, can do so with relative ease. It does require the equipment and intent to hack into people's devices, but an extended flight is the ideal place for this covert criminal activity.

Using a VPN (I covered these security tools in the Jan/Feb issue and online) affords users a layer of protection; however, most in-flight service providers block the use of commercial VPN apps — presumably to stop passengers looking at objectionable material and to aid their own marketing-related data collection. Using a VPN provided by your business should probably work, though.

The second issue is speed. Currently, most aeroplane wi-fi services provide a tiny amount of bandwidth — about one-tenth the speed of a halfway decent 4G connection — and that has to be shared by all passengers. This will make websites load very slowly and streaming video impossible, so you're better off downloading content to watch offline before you leave home.

With charges often billed by the amount of megabytes used, it will also get very expensive if you're doing anything data-heavy, but if you can't resist Snapchatting from seat 52A, make sure your device is running up-to-date antivirus and firewall software, and avoid sharing personal data that could lead to identity theft.

Follow @katerussell

Published in the June 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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