What does the shield over a WiFi network mean?


Windows 10 has a new icon in the networking flyout:

Fred's WiFi
Open

It's a WiFi network with a shield and an exclamation point. What does this mean?

It means that the network is not secure.

What does it mean for the network not to be secure?

It's the same as "Open". The network does not require a password and consequently does not use encryption. Anybody can snoop on your network activity unless you take your own encryption measures (such as using https).

Comments (51)
  1. Ted M says:

    That’s been around since Windows Vista. The shield was orange originally, according to a search I just did.

    1. Ted M says:

      Which now that I think about it begs the question, why were the colours removed? White on white doesn’t seem to be as alarming to me in this instance, where alarm would generally be a good thing

      1. alegr1 says:

        >why were the colours removed
        Because Windows 8/10 look was designed by a bunch of squares.

      2. Erkin Alp Güney says:

        Flat design problems.

        1. Even flat design allows for color, especially for something that should be noticeably a warning or error. Why they decided not to use color is beyond me.

      3. Ted M says:

        Also an additional thought to consider for this discussion, incorporating colourblindness into UI design: http://www.gearboxsoftware.com/2014/01/inside-the-box-adding-a-colorblind-mode-to-borderlands-2/

  2. Zack says:

    Per https://www.usenix.org/conference/soups2016/technical-sessions/presentation/porter-felt I will bet forty cakes that a plurality of Windows 10 users will misinterpret that as “the connection _is_ secure”.

    1. Antonio Rodríguez says:

      I see your forty cakes, and bet another forty that, given a big enough user base (as Windows’ one), you can always find a plurality that misinterprets any user interface widget, no matter how clear it is :-) .

      But you are right that using a shield to mark something as unsecure is incoherent with the iconography of Windows, which uses shields to mark something as secure or security-related. They should have used an exclamation mark inside a circle or something in that line. This is not, IMHO, an example of good user interface design.

    2. Dave says:

      That was my immediate reaction as well. The padlock and the shield are probably the most widely-used symbols for denoting security warm fuzzies, the symbolism here is really confusing.

  3. HK says:

    Representing something that is not protected with a shield was not the best idea. I already mistook it not once, not twice.

    1. GWO says:

      The shield is fine, the exclamation-point! is the problem. There’s a de-facto standard for “NOT” in icons, and its the good old red-circle-with-a-diagonal-line-through it. A crossed-out shield means “No protection”. A shield with a ! in it? Who knows.

      1. Exclamation points are commonly used to mean “Warning”.

        1. SimonRev says:

          While you are correct, Raymond, in this case I believe that this is a case of iconography fail. You are presented with two symbols — shield and exclamation. And while the intent is that you should compose the meanings (protection+warning), for most people (myself included) the shield is the dominant icon and carries the connotation of protection and the eye slides off the exclamation (it almost seems like irrelevant decoration on the shield). This is compounded by the fact that earlier versions of windows put the shield icon on the encrypted networks.

          Since a red circle with slash seems to be off-the-table until the world finishes with this stupid monochrome and flat UX fettish that is currently in force across most major platforms, I would recommend putting the shield on the protected networks as more clear than the current iconography.

          1. CodeVisio says:

            I owe you a coffee for “… until the world finishes with this stupid monochrome and flat UX fettish that is currently in force across most major platforms…”

          2. Kevin says:

            While your argument is certainly logical, we want to move towards warning for insecure configurations rather than secure configurations. In the long run, this will also be the preferred UX for HTTP/HTTPS (i.e. show a warning on HTTP and nothing on HTTPS).

            Why?

            Because padlock/shield/”this is secure” is a wholly inaccurate description of both HTTPS and WPA. A phishing website can easily be HTTPS-enabled. An evil network can easily be WPA-protected. The only thing we know for sure is that if the website/network is not protected by encryption, then it is definitely not secure. Good UX should only communicate the insecure state, because that is the only time we can be reasonably sure of our conclusions.

          3. cheong00 says:

            Kelvin: Sorry, but using HTTPS really does not automagically mean you’re secure, because of the fundamential flaw on the e-cert model that based trust on injectable trusted certificate. What you suggest will just create false sense of security. (And btw, it’s intutive that by clicking on the “lock” icon I can see information for the e-cert and/or encryption be used, but what if you removed that icon?)

            You know, many companies uses network monitoring solutions uses the technique that injecting a false CA cert by GPO, then use that false CA to generate replacement certificates to perform MITA on all outgoing HTTPS based traffics.

            Btw, it’s still puzzling to me why browsers does not implement warnings against those fake certs installed by “GPO installed” certs. I can certainly understand why Firefox or Safari doesn’t do this because they don’t support AD integration. but what for those like IE, Edge or Chrome?

            There ought to be a way to warn users when the browsers found that every HTTPS traffic towards public IP host is encrpyted by certs rooted on single root CA.

          4. cheong00 says:

            MITA -> MITM attack

          5. Voo says:

            “because of the fundamential flaw on the e-cert model”

            This is a classic example of “on the other side of the airtight hatchway”. The ability to install custom certificates is in absolutely no way a fundamental flaw or any flaw at all. If you’re able to install that custom certificate you already have enough rights to own the system.

            There’d be several much easier ways than installing a custom certificate and then MITM the users connection.

          6. DWalker07 says:

            If the intent is to communicate that the security is questionable, or needs attention, then a QUESTION mark over the shield would make more sense than an exclamation point.

          7. Kevin says:

            cheong00: Why are you repeating my own argument back to me with “Sorry” in front of it? I just said that HTTPS is not guaranteed to be secure.

          8. morlamweb says:

            @DWalker07: to me, a question mark over the shield tells me that the system doesn’t know what the security status is of the wifi connection, when in fact that’s not the case. A better choice would be a shield with a crossed-circle over it. That symbol universally means “no” or “not available” or some other equivalent phrase. Therefore, if a shield icon = security, then a shield + crossed-circle = “no security”.

          9. cheong00 says:

            @Kelvin: Because “show a warning on HTTP and nothing on HTTPS”

            Keep the current model and don’t remove icon on HTTPS. Let the icon be displayed so users can easily click on the icon and get information about the connection security status. Let the user determine whether the encryption has been tempered if the user has concern instead of hiding the information deep in UI where even the experienced user have to search for it.

            @Voo: Sometimes you bring the computer to working location and it’s not that company’s property. This situation is very common for software vendors that works onsite. The company’s network admin has no right to look at the encrypted connections between my computer and my company (the vendor).

          10. Voo says:

            @cheong00 You actually join your computer to their domain? That seems unusual to me.

            But the point is: As soon as you joined the domain, the domain administrator is able to execute arbitrary code on your computer. Yes they can see your encrypted network traffic, but then they can also read every single file on your computer and log every key press. If you don’t trust a network do not join it, otherwise it’s game over.

          11. cheong00 says:

            @Voo: There is literally no choice when the TFS account provided by the customer is a domain account. The situation is common when you work for a software vendor contracting work from government bodies.

          12. Voo says:

            @cheong00 I’m reasonably sure that TFS offers other authentication methods. But the original point stands: If you join a domain you give the administrators complete control over your device, worrying about custom certificates at that point is silly.

          13. ender says:

            Slashed circle isn’t the right symbol to use here – at least to me that’d mean that the network isn’t available instead of not being secure.

        2. ender says:

          IMHO, it’d have been better if the exclamation mark was in a triangle instead of a shield – that has more of a Warning connotation: ⚠

    2. JDG says:

      There is precedent for using a shield as a warning. An application or action that requires elevation is indicated with a shield. That shield isn’t telling you that that application is protected or somehow safer to use — it is telling you that it bypasses a security boundary and is potentially *dangerous* to use.

  4. DWalker07 says:

    I agree, this icon is confusing.

    What’s worse, there doesn’t seem to be a central place where icons and their meanings are documented (that I can find).

    1. Ted M says:

      There used to be an excellent design document back when Vista was first released that described how icons should be used in nouveau dialog boxes

      1. Jan Ringoš says:

        It’s now here: https://developer.microsoft.com/en-us/windows/desktop/design (you need to scroll down past the Moden UI stuff). I still try to follow most of the rules, but lately it seems like I am the last one.

  5. henke37 says:

    But not all insecure networks lack a password. There are still plenty of Worst Encryption Possible networks around.

    1. Joshua says:

      And systems that crack WEP because it’s faster than prompting for the password.

  6. Yukkuri says:

    I thought it meant that the network had seen Snake and he needs to hide until the music resets to normal.

    1. +1 for the 802.11mgs reference

  7. alegr1 says:

    The shield icon is an example of cultural blindness. It means something for people familiar with old European culture, but doesn’t mean anything for lots of other people.

    1. xcomcmdr says:

      China and Japan also use(d) shields, you know…

      1. Tom says:

        As did many Africans and Native Amercians. In fact, you would have a much harder time finding a culture who DIDN’T use shields.

      2. alegr1 says:

        Their shields weren’t shaped like that. What this shield looks like is a boat seen from bow.

    2. Ray Koopa says:

      So is the floppy disk for a save icon, and yet nowadays youth culture understands it.

      1. D-Coder says:

        Actually they don’t “understand” it — they’ve never seen a floppy disk or diskette — they just know what it does.

        That’s usually good enough, but it’s not understanding.

        1. Ivan K says:

          Who are you to tell them what they don’t understand?

  8. Z says:

    What was wrong with the old windows warning icon: Triangle with exclamation?

    1. JDG says:

      That would not be specific enough. To me, it would indicate a problem with the Wi-Fi network itself, not necessarily something security-related. I personally never found this particular bit of iconography confusing in the least.

      1. ender says:

        Then maybe just an exclamation mark on it ‘s own.

  9. Ivan K says:

    I thought it was my machine broadcasting some modernised version of the bat signal.

  10. DaveL says:

    It would have been so much clearer to remove the icon and put in “is not secure”.

    1. Ted M says:

      Then you run into a localization nightmare.

      1. Klimax says:

        Actually, there is both icon and text. (secure/insecure)

  11. Chris Crowther says:

    I think I would have gone with a broken shield.

  12. Marc K 4096 says:

    In the WiFi dialog, it also includes the text “Open”. That’s good enough for me. But, I could see how the average user could mistake that for meaning it is more secure than an encrypted network lacking the shield. I’d be in favor of the text being changed to “Open, Insecure” and also using the text “Insecure” for WEP networks and others that are encrypted with compromised protocols.

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