by By Chris Zoladz and Mike Spinney | January 01, 2011

For conference and trade show organizers selecting hotels for their events, the cost of providing complimentary Wi-Fi for attendees has become a significant point of negotiation. What many planners might not know is that the property typically doesn't own the network over which the service is provided. Furthermore, while your attendees might expect free Wi-Fi, there can be significant data security risks for those who take advantage.

Many hotels contract with third-party service providers to deliver Wi-Fi without assuming the burden of maintaining a separate information network infrastructure. While keeping
systems separate allows the property's IT personnel to focus on administering the hotel's own network, it also means nobody at the property has direct control over the systems your attendees will use. The hotel's primary concern is making a profit from the service, but just because it functions as a go-between with a Wi-Fi service provider doesn't absolve the hotel from the responsibility of keeping users safe from cyber threats while online.

Among the threats facing users of a hotel's Wi-Fi service: surreptitious malware designed to infect a computer and steal information; traffic-sniffing equipment attempting to inter­cept information in transit; and spoofed gateways designed to fool users into thinking they are connected to the hotel's Wi-Fi service when, in fact, they are operating on a channel created with the intent to monitor and steal information.

Hotel Responsibility Many guests do not realize their Internet access is provided by a third party. Because they connect while on-site through a gateway that is made available by the property -- and often branded with the hotel name -- the responsibility for ensuring that proper data privacy and information security practices are followed falls on the hotel.

The hotel has the obligation of vetting the Internet service provider to reasonably ensure that the Wi-Fi infrastructure is secure, and that such assurances are contractually outlined. It's important to ask for written affirmation that the hotel has taken the proper precautions to ensure it has chosen a trustworthy vendor, and the network meets current standards for security and privacy protection.

Should any of your attendees experience a problem while connected through the property's Wi-Fi service provider, it is likely they'll associate the experience with you, the hotel or both. A security incident affecting the guest might well result in a demand for compensation or other resolution.

Smart Precautions To help provide a safer online experience for attendees, planners should find out the name of the Wi-Fi service provider and let attendees know how to identify the property's network before logging on. Some other safety tips to pass along:

• If possible, use your own dedicated Wi-Fi service any time you are on the road and connecting in a public place.

• Keep security measures, such as antivirus and anti-malware, up to date.

• Encrypt sensitive data and communications if possible.