With more than 6 million listings worldwide and more than 2 million people, on average, staying in Airbnbs per night, according to the company, it’s no secret that people use the platform. When travelers look for an Airbnb, they might ensure that it has certain features to make them feel safe and comfortable. But, there’s one thing that travelers, or hosts for that matter, might not have thought of: the Airbnb WiFi security.
In recent years, cybersecurity experts have warned about the potential risk for hackers getting people’s information through Airbnb WiFi.
This topic made headlines in 2016 after security researcher Jeremy Galloway presented about it at the BlackHat cybersecurity conference in Las Vegas. Since then, Airbnb has only grown, and experts are still detailing the risks.
This doesn’t mean you should panic. It’s just always smart to know the risks and take precautions, as you would in any situation, whether it’s internet safety or your physical safety. Here are the details and how you can make sure your information stays safe.
Why the experts say Airbnb WiFi is a threat
Most people know by now that you shouldn’t join WiFi networks you don’t know, and you shouldn’t do things that could give away your important information, like log in to your bank account, on WiFi networks in public places like a coffee shop or airport. Cybersecurity experts say that you shouldn’t treat your Airbnb WiFi network any differently. According to CNN, Galloway says people don’t generally think of WiFI networks in an Airbnb like the Wifi in a cafe—so don’t take the same precautions.
One scenario is that the Airbnb host could be trying to get guests’ information. However, what’s perhaps more likely is that a guest hacks into the WiFi, which could target not only past and future guests, but the unsuspecting host as well.
This would put bank account information, email, and more—anything that the person does at an Airbnb—at risk, according to CNN.
How hacking into WiFi works
The router is what leaves an Airbnb most vulnerable to hacking.
Hackers can reset, and thereby gain control to, a WiFi router simply by using a paperclip to press the right button. Once they do that, they can see information and data that has been stored and even continue to collect data.
With this perspective, an Airbnb WiFi network could be even less secure than another public place. In an Airbnb, any guest could mess with the WiFi router and hosts wouldn’t know, whereas at a public place like a coffee shop, it would be much more difficult for someone to access it, according to Jason Glassberg, co-founder of cybersecurity firm Casaba Security, in HuffPost.
But according to Glassberg in HuffPost, that’s not the only way hackers can get you with WiFi. For example, if the Airbnb host provides a device like a tablet, laptop, or smart TV, they can record your user information. Because people use the same passwords for all sorts of things from Netflix to their Gmail, that can open you up a lot of information for hackers, says Glassberg in the same article. Glassberg also told HuffPost that shared printers can be problematic. You think you’re connecting to a printer, but it’s really put there by hackers to capture information, says Glassberg.
To be fair, the WiFi risk is not just at Airbnbs. In the Huffington Post article, Glassberg says hotels are often at the same risk as Airbnbs. They could have better security than your average Airbnb host, but they may not. In the Huffington Post, Glassberg tells an anecdote about when he was staying at a hotel recently and just wanted to see if he could access the network. He did.
Hotels might even be more at risk as Airbnbs because with more people staying there, there’s better payoff for hackers, he says.
(For the record, Galloway told of his own anecdote being able to hack into a network in an Airbnb while on vacation, Vice reports.)
How to keep your information safe
No matter where you’re using WiFi, it’s a good idea to update your devices with security features, says Glassberg in HuffPost.
Also, the experts recommend using a virtual private network, or VPN, at an Airbnb or hotel, which doesn’t have to cost a lot. Travelers can also create a hotspot with their phones. A phone hotspot creates a WiFi network you can use with your other devices. Glassberg says this used to be expensive, but now it’s just part of many people’s phone plans.
Also, if you are using the WiFi, be smart about it. Avoid doing your banking, but researching restaurants to go to in the city you’re in is probably fine.
As for Airbnb hosts, Galloway told Vice that they should lock up their routers in a closet, cabinet, or lockbox so they can’t be accessed by guests.
CNN reported in 2016 that Airbnb’s response to this information is that it takes cybersecurity seriously. The company recommended that hosts keep routers away from guests’ access and also change the password after every guest. It also said they’d likely be able to track offenders, so someone wouldn’t be able to do this multiple times.
According to Galloway in Vice, it’s not like you need to be paranoid—just be aware and be smart.
Don’t blindly trust the WiFi in an Airbnb, just as you hopefully wouldn’t in any other public place.