Study: Hotel Networks Put Corporate Users at Risk

The Center for Hospitality Research's survey and hack confirms worries of weak security on hotel networks

You’re putting your company's data at risk when you connect to a hotel network, according to a new study examining Internet connections at U.S. hotels.

The Center for Hospitality Research at Cornell University surveyed nearly 150 hotels and then conducted on-site vulnerability testing on a sampling of about 50 hotels. About 20 percent of the nearly 150 hotels in the study still run basic (and vulnerable) Ethernet hub-type networks, and nearly 93 percent offer WiFi. Of the 39 hotel WiFi networks tested on-site by a Cornell researcher, only six were using encryption.

“On balance, we were forced to conclude that guests’ data transmissions are often at risk when they use a hotel’s network,” said Erica Wagner, assistant professor at Cornell’s School of Hotel Administration and one of the researchers who conducted the study. “However, we did find hotels that were paying attention to the security of their guests’ data.”

Interestingly only about 21 percent of the hotels said they had reports of “wrongdoing” on their networks, according to the study. Still, the researchers pointed to some additional red flags from the survey, including the fact that most of the hotels don't have IT staffers. And one third of those that did said they had just one IT employee -- and that employee didn’t receive any training before starting his or her position. The average amount of hotel IT budgets that went to security was 9.5 percent, with some hotels spending nothing at all on security and others, 80 percent of their IT budget.

In basic vulnerability and penetration tests, Josh Ogle, graduate of the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration and president of TriVesta LLC, logged onto hotels’ WiFi networks and ran an Ethereal protocol analyzer to determine if he could see HTTP or SMTP traffic. Eight of the on-site hotel tests were on wired networks, and Ogle looked on those networks for shared folders, and tried to hack into the hotel router. He also tried to capture packets from other guests.

“Even with hotels that required authentication, I found helpful employees who got me past that barrier. So, authentication is not as effective as we think, and then I found that of the 39 hotels that offered Wi-Fi connections, only six used encryption to help protect the system,” Ogle said.

One hotel stood out as a model for securing these networks, the researchers say -- the W Dallas Hotel–Victory, which runs VLANs for its users. “The VLAN inhibits attackers from using their computer to imitate the hotel’s main server, which is the mechanism most would use to intercept other people’s data,” the researchers wrote.

The findings reveal “that hotels in the U.S. are generally ill-prepared to protect their guests from the security problems inherent in Ethernet. We were forced to conclude further that most hotels have installed an amenity that they may not be managing properly,” according to the report.

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About the Author(s)

Kelly Jackson Higgins, Editor-in-Chief, Dark Reading

Kelly Jackson Higgins is the Editor-in-Chief of Dark Reading. She is an award-winning veteran technology and business journalist with more than two decades of experience in reporting and editing for various publications, including Network Computing, Secure Enterprise Magazine, Virginia Business magazine, and other major media properties. Jackson Higgins was recently selected as one of the Top 10 Cybersecurity Journalists in the US, and named as one of Folio's 2019 Top Women in Media. She began her career as a sports writer in the Washington, DC metropolitan area, and earned her BA at William & Mary. Follow her on Twitter @kjhiggins.

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