The ethics of "free" Wi-Fi

Should I be piggybacking on somebody else’s Wi-Fi? Since I’ve had such trouble making my own Wi-Fi network connect reliably to both the house and The Back Room (home of This Old PC), I’ve recently begun connecting to a neighbor’s wireless router. We’ve got a big apartment complex and a new condo building right behind us, and since the condo units started selling, a bunch of new routers have come online — none of which I can get on the house’s iBook, but many of which hit between 40 percent and 60 percent power on This Old PC (now equipped with a cheap Fry’s antenna on the desk).

Am I doing a bad thing? Is it illegal, unethical or perfectly reasonable?

As it turns out, there’s a lot of chatter out there about this very topic. Start here:

Tech Builder: Opinion: ‘Stealing’ Your Neighbor’s Wi-Fi

PC World: Use a wireless network, get arrested?

Here’s a comment from this one:

If someone is using your wireless network from the street, it’s because your wireless network is broadcasting beyond your property, pushing its connection protocols. If that doesn’t seem like an explicit invitation, it’s at least implied permission to connect.

and another:

It’s beginning to sound like our society has become full of people that are looking for a free ride. The ethical thing to do is buy your own access. If you’re in a residential area it’s a no brainer that the network you see isn’t some company offering free access. It sounds like a large percentage of people would use their neighbor’s access without telling them and you can bet they wouldn’t offer to pay any of the monthly bill. What happened to good old fashioned honesty and integrity?

More on this subject:

Darknet: Jacking Wifi is ‘OK’ say Ethics Expert

Wikipedia: Wardriving

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review: Wi-Fi users piggyback on free signals

The New York Times (reg. required): Hey Neighbor, Stop Piggybacking on My Wireless

Here’s a sample from the NYT:

Many who piggyback say the practice does not feel like theft because it does not seem to take anything away from anyone. One occasional piggybacker recently compared it to “reading the newspaper over someone’s shoulder.”

Wi-Fi is in the air, and it is a very low curb, if you will, to step up and use it,” said Mike Wolf of ABI Research, a high-technology market research company in Oyster Bay, N.Y.

This is especially true, Mr. Wolf said, because so many users do not bother to secure their networks with passwords or encryption programs. The programs are usually shipped with customers’ wireless routers, devices that plug into an Internet connection and make access to it wireless. Many home network owners admit that they are oblivious to piggybackers.

Some, like Marla Edwards, who think they have locked intruders out of their networks, learn otherwise. Ms. Edwards, a junior at Baruch College in New York, said her husband recently discovered that their home network was not secure after a visiting friend with a laptop easily hopped on.

“There’s no gauge, no measuring device that says 48 people are using your access,” Ms. Edwards said.

And there could be malicious goings-on:

David Cole, director of product management for Symantec Security Response, a unit of Symantec, a maker of computer security software, said consumers should understand that an open wireless network invites greater vulnerabilities than just a stampede of “freeloading neighbors.”

He said savvy users could piggyback into unprotected computers to peer into files containing sensitive financial and personal information, release malicious viruses and worms that could do irreparable damage, or use the computer as a launching pad for identity theft or the uploading and downloading of child pornography.

“The best case is that you end up giving a neighbor a free ride,” Mr. Cole said. “The worst case is that someone can destroy your computer, take your files and do some really nefarious things with your network that gets you dragged into court.”

But others see it differently:

Some users say they have protected their computers but have decided to keep their networks open as a passive protest of what they consider the exorbitant cost of Internet access:

“I’m sticking it to the man,” said Elaine Ball, an Internet subscriber who lives in Chicago. She complained that she paid $65 a month for Internet access until she recently switched to a $20-a-month promotion plan that would go up to $45 a month after the first three months.

“I open up my network, leave it wide open for anyone to jump on,” Ms. Ball said.

And still one more:

ZDnet: Is it wrong to steal wireless bandwidth?

From a quick perusal of these Web pages, my gut feeling is that sharing Wi-Fi is OK if both parties — the router’s owner and the piggybacking user — agree on it, even though broadband providers probably aren’t too crazy about it (they’d rather collect $15 to $50 from everybody). AND if the router’s owner doesn’t charge for it. (I think splitting the bill gets into some uncharted waters.) In the real world, the vast majority of customers are just not going to pimp out their Wi-Fi to 20 neighbors — and the really paranoid ones aren’t going to use a wireless router at all, either plugging the modem directly into the computer or using a wired router (or turning off the wireless on their Wi-Fi router).

But piggybacking on someone else’s Wi-Fi without them knowing? Every once in a while and for a limited amount of non-malicious activity, I think it’s OK; but on a daily basis, not OK. As was expressed in many of the articles linked here, routers generally ship with the security wide open so they will work for unsavvy users. There needs to be better, easier software for configuring and maintaining these routers so even the technophobic can implement their security. And as my friend Bruce says, “Ethernet is best.” He likes the wire for the speed, especially with gigabit Ethernet and CAT6 cable.

But if you want to create a network with the expressed purpose of sharing it, has the guidelines on how to do it. This organization in San Diego is currently setting up such networks.

On our Netgear router, the lengthy manual (available to all on PDF from Netgear) goes through how to implement password protection, encryption and MAC address filtering. I think it would be a nice thing, if you know a neighbor or neighbors who just do a little surfing — not running a business or anything — and let them in by password and or MAC address.

And Google is planning to offer free Wi-Fi in Mountain View and San Francisco, while other cities, including Los Angeles, have some plans to offer Wi-Fi and charge for it.

Assuming it can be done, I think that making a transition from wired to wireless Internet for home users would be a great thing. And much in the same way that home phone service is regulated to be affordable, I think the same should be done for Internet access, which these days is as essential, if not more so, to the lives of most of us.

2 thoughts on “The ethics of "free" Wi-Fi

  1. Steven Rosenberg

    If the wireless network is unencrypted, yes — and that’s true for all public Wi-Fi networks that don’t require passwords. If you’re getting in without entering a WPA or WEP password, others can see the pages you go to … assuming they’re looking.

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