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Free WiFi: Is "Borrowing" Your Neighbors WiFi Wrong?

Published 3/2/08 (Modified 6/17/11)
By MoneyBlueBook

Are you a wireless bandit? I was - back when I was just a poor cash-strapped student during my graduate school days. I know many of you out there have "borrowed" your neighbor's Wi-Fi (wireless fidelity) internet signal before to save a few bucks. Maybe you just moved into your new apartment or house and haven't had time to set up DSL or cable internet yet. So what's your take on the moral and legal implications of using someone else's wireless connection? Fortunately I am a working adult now with my own broadband connection so I don't have to face this dilemma anymore. But is the practice of tapping into your neighbor's Wi-Fi connection from the confines of your own home wrong? Is it some type of piracy or wireless theft, or is it merely receiving a free benefit that has either been knowingly or neglectfully dumped into the public domain?

I Don't Have A Moral Problem With Accessing Someone Else's Publicly Available and Unsecured Wireless Signal

Currently I have my own broadband service through my internet provider, Comcast. Thus I have no regular need to piggy back on someone else's wireless signal, although I can see when the emergency occasion may arise, particularly if my internet connection ever went down. Rather than driving to the local library to use one of their free public computers, I may just find it more convenient to search for stray unsecured signals and temporarily utilize one. Besides, I wouldn't even know how to go about tracking down the location of the wireless source to ask him or her for permission.

Personally, I have no substantial ethical problems with using my neighbor's unsecured wireless signal from the vicinity of my own home. I feel the practice falls into the fuzzy gray area that encompasses questionable acts like speeding. It's just something everyone does on occasion and not universally or equitably enforced. It's not like I'm sneaking into one of my neighbors' homes and plugging my laptop into their wireless router, or trying to intercept some other user's data transmissions. I would simply be receiving something that is already floating around and rendered available in the public airwaves. For all I know, the person has no problem with giving the public reasonable access. In fact, some neighbors have been known to express such generosity. I'm not advocating moral wrongdoing, but I tend to view such practices through a pragmatic perspective.

Homeowners Should Do A Better Job Of Securing Their Wi-Fi Connection

I used to operate my own wireless router a few years ago. However, I always made sure my wireless network was fully secured and encrypted to protect against unauthorized access. Of course, my opinion would clearly depend on what side of the wireless connection I was on. If I was the one who had the wireless router and some stranger was accessing my signal without permission, I would obviously be upset at them for freeloading on a service I paid a monthly fee for. While their usage wouldn't likely diminish my full enjoyment of my internet service by drastically consuming bandwidth to a noticeable degree, to me, it's just the principle of freeloading involved. But at the same time I would blame myself for ignorantly not shielding my public broadcast signal from unauthorized access. Wireless network owners must take it upon themselves to protect their own service if they want to exclude the public from their Wi-Fi service. If the wireless signal is not properly secured once it takes flight, it's reasonable to assume that any number of neighbors within the broadcast radius can easily pick up the stray signal.

Securing one's own wireless router is very easy and something that everyone with a wireless router should do. There are a variety of security options available, from WEP encrypted passwords, MAC address authentication, signal encryption, limiting the SSID broadcast name, to simply not sending out a public wireless signal that frankly anyone can access. WEP passwords and MAC address authentication help to limit access to those who are authorized and help to protect the system from intruders. Blocking your router's SSID name makes your signal identity more invisible to those who are not already aware of its existence. Securing your Wi-Fi is important because you never know who might be using your connection and what they might be using it for. It could be anything from illegal file sharing, to child pornography, to illegal spam activity. Setting up proper security measures should be every network owner's top priority before they start utilizing the service.

The Legal Implications For Public Wireless Theft Are Murky, And Prohibitions Are Difficult To Enforce

In the legal realm, the area of so-called wireless signal theft is fuzzy at best, although many jurisdictions have enacted laws and ordinances prohibiting such activity. I think we can generally establish that the act of piggy backing on your neighbor's Wi-Fi signal is probably not the purist thing any of us can do, but is it an act that might subject you to criminal prosecution or even civil suit by the wireless owner? The answer is probably not, unless the anonymous wireless user takes it to the extreme.

If your neighbor's wireless signal was password protected but you somehow managed to hack your way in, I think it's safe to say that you are accessing the connection unlawfully and without permission. But what about the vast majority of piggy backing cases in which the signal was completely unsecured and floating in the public neighborhood airwaves. It's a harder legal case for the wireless owner to build. One of the legal cornerstones of litigation is also the issue of damages. If you only used your neighbor's connection for occasional email and light web browsing without slowing the connection down, how much damages could your neighbor claim as the harm he received as a result of your actions?

Enforcement and prosecution of such acts have always been exceedingly difficult as well. Even the mega million music industry and their RIAA goons have difficulty tracking down illegal filesharers and downloaders of music. Tracking down the location of unauthorized wireless users is also quite difficult. It's easy if you only have a few neighborhood houses nearby or if it was just some guy parked outside the home in his car and using his portable laptop to access the connection. But what about a situation like mine? I live in a medium size apartment complex. How would any wireless network owner determine which of the nearly 50 apartment rooms was the culprit? It's a difficult task. That's why homeowners need to resort to self help by taking better wireless security precautions.

Downsides and Dangers Of Using A Nearby Neighbor's Wireless Signal

The most obvious disadvantage of using someone else's wireless connection is that it is inherently unreliable. You are using a publicly available connection so the owner of that connection can boot you out or shut off any unauthorized connections on a whim. If you are a heavy internet user or frequently work at home using the internet like myself, relying on someone else's Wi-Fi is a terrible idea, even with the cost savings. It's not just a convenience matter either. Keep in mind that the owner of the wireless router has access to all data and information relayed through the router and if the owner is tech savvy and diabolical enough, he or she may intercept confidential information you've provided using the connection, including logins and passwords.

With all the free public wireless hotspots available today through commercial establishments like coffee shops and restaurants, perhaps this whole public Wi-Fi sharing problem will ultimately disappear. Perhaps one day all local and state governments will finally agree to provide free wireless internet for all. Now wouldn't that be something?

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110 Responses to “Free WiFi | How to Get Free WiFi | Neighbors WiFi | Money Blue Book” 

  1. daanna says:

    I don't mind, I have netgear but I live in a rural area and unfortunately I have a limit on my download and upload. So, If i use these futures to much my server starts to slow down. NOw, I wouldn't expect someone to know that. That is why I have it locked. Otherwise, I wouldn't mind sharing.

  2. Diane says:

    I don't see how anyone can tell who is using their wi-fi. I certainly can't tell if someone's on with me. And .... if someone can't figure out how to secure their connection (I can't seem to get on anymore once I secure it), then I'm sure they (me) can't tell if someone is using their connection. You probably have to be a hacker yourself in order to figure that one out. :/

  3. aaron says:

    The owners of a internet connection using a wireless access have the option of using bandwidth and quality of service controls on their routers. They can prioritize their own usage so that no other free user can get in their way, but only access the remnant of bandwith available. The owner can secure all their assets connected to the network. with that level of control of bandwidth, and security of all connected rescources, there is no justification to password protect wireless internet access against use by neighbors and those passing by.

  4. Pit=Retard says:

    Sounds like Pit works for an internet company?? We ALL need to start sharing of our internet with our neighbors! We have the power to drive these far fetched prices DOWN by doing so! WAY DOWN if not FREE! SHARE...SHARE...SHARE....! And NO, it is NOT illegal to connect to open air waves! Thus this is the reason RADIO stations cannot charge for OPEN air waves! Don't you think they would if they could?!? Hell yea they would! If it is OPEN, it is FREE! Same thing goes for satellite tv! If you aquire a device that happens to pick up satellite tv OPEN air waves.....you ARE NOT breaking the law! PERIOD! Citizen band radio is the same....OPEN air waves is FREE! Thanks and have a great day! Smile and wave.......

  5. Common Sense says:

    A way up this chain Alec said something about leaving keys in a car..."yes it's stupid, but you wouldn't steal it, whatever"....But these signals are in my living room. Therefore, this is like leaving the keys in your car and PARKING IT IN MY GARAGE!

    Piggybacking is not stealing. It is in the air! It is in the air! O my goodness! There is no charge for the air we breath (_yet_, anyway), so anything that is in the air in my own home inside MY walls that I pay rent for is MINE! That's how I see it. I don't know who this signal is coming from in order to let them know that I'm sharing their signal, I'm not tech savvy enough to know how to capture any of their passwords and HOPE they aren't savvy enough to capture mine either. Even if I were I wouldn't. THAT would be stealing for real. Sharing the signal is not stealing.

  6. Alec says:

    Common Sense - I was merely responding to someone else (Randy, I think) and repeating what he'd said. The only reason I posted to this forum is because I've always thought that there might be some manufacturer culpability in the fact there are so many unsecured nets out there. I don't believe I EVER said I thought that piggybacking was "stealing" - or even implied that I thought it should be illegal. In a number of cases, I argued the opposite.

    In fact, right now, I'm on vacation in New York (I live in Oregon) and piggybacking to respond to your post (grin).

    In essence, all I'm really saying is that router manufacturers have an "obligation" to make customers who buy their routers "aware" of their security options in a clear no-nonsense manner ... primarily because there are still a lot of people out there who I'd consider "technologically challenged" (grin) when it comes to computers and the Internet. A router buyer cannot make a choice to secure their router if they're not aware a choice exists. Older routers (like my original Linksys router) came in a box with no security instructions ... leading clueless users to believe that all they had to do was "plug it in."

    FWIW, I find it interesting that the unsecure net I'm communicating on right now is using the default SSID (ahem) "linksys." Hehehe, maybe this person has the same router I originally had and just "plugged it in" - without investigating his security options (or even knowing he HAD options).

  7. Alec says:

    Just a PS to my last. I'm vacationing in a "rural" area of upstate New York. And, I'm staying at a motel that has no WIFI. I stayed at the same motel last year. Using my laptop WIFI alone last year, I couldn't see a signal unless I walked out on the 2nd floor walkway and went to the end - putting the laptop on top of a garbage can (grin). Even then, it was too weak to connect to. This year, I bought three things - a 2 watt WIFI signal amplifier:


    ...the optional 9db antenna for it:


    ...and a 32-foot "active" USB cable so I could put the unit & antenna in the best possible location while my laptop remained on my room's desk:


    The experiment worked ... which is why you're seeing this post. The net I'm connected to has the same SSID as the net I couldn't connect to last year - so I'm fairly certain it's the same net. And the signal this year, thanks to the amp & antenna, is strong and consistent.

  8. Ernesto says:

    I have a iPod touch and I get my neighbors wifi..., if I buy a wireless adapter for my xbox 360 could I get xbox live?

  9. Tali says:

    Yup, I'm a "piggybacker"
    But I don't have too much of a choice-I'm too young to buy my own wireless
    But anyway- I'm never doing anything bad on it! Just light browsing and the occasional email- which is stongly limited because I'm terrified that they'll find me out.
    my best friend never forgets to remind me that its ILLEGAL and let me say it again- I don't have much of a choice.
    Hey-does anyone know if they can read my emails? Or know that I'm on their network?
    My take on it is that if they leave it unsecure-and don't mind- then it's okay. Oh, and to those neighbors that label their networks 'feel free' and stuff-you need to move next door to me ;)

  10. Tali says:

    One more thing-is it possible to hide yourself so that they can't tell you're on their network? I don't even know whose connection I'm on, so it's not as if I can ask them.

  11. Starr says:

    I see it as, if a person is smart enough to purchase and set up a wireless router in their home, as well as work the computer(s) attached, then they are definitely intelligent enough to secure their network from theft/sharing...
    But, for example, to show how easily they are targeted.. My laptop has a lil wi-fi button.. When I push it, it tries to automatically connect to anything possible..
    I don't have to open any files or folders or anything.

    orange = off
    blue = on.. 1.. 2.. 3.. pow. internet.

    My 4 year old figured it out. Within 10 seconds, he can be on his fave toddler site. Learning, and playing off someone else's dime.

    Until these people take the time to read up on the products their buying, and set yourself up for no surprises! You will get none. Secure network means no extra fees, possible PATHETIC waste-of-the-court lawsuits, or downtime from your ISP.

    !!! Don't like being piggybacked, don't make it so easy a child can do it !!!

  12. Ken Stilson says:

    I suggest the neighbor stop bombarding my property with his R F.....you too Direct TV and Dish Network

  13. Linda says:

    I never knew about piggybacking until just a few days ago. I was up late like 300AM working on ancestry. everyone went to bed and all the lights i n the house were on. I didn't notice so many were on, but anyway I stood out on the block I am certain. When I started turning off lights and my computer a car was parked out front of my house. When I looked out the front door, they turned around in my drive and left.
    This is probably what was happening, they were piggybacking my internet. I don't feel comfortable about this.
    I took so notes about securing your router. How do I do that I have secureity on my computer. It doesn't sound like this takes care of protecting your router. How do you set WPA or WPA2 or AES? How can you see at the top of your laptop a status thing in the corner? what does it look like?
    When I went on cable, they gave me a user id and password and told me to keep in a safe place lol, but when i found out I could carry my laptop in the other room, I used my normal msn.com, yahoo.com logins. I've neever used that user id and password. See how savy I am? l0l. I just thought it was if I was having trouble and the internet provider would ask me for it.
    I did notice there were sever internet names on my laptop one day when I took my computer out in my car to see if I could get into my service at home. I seen one or two familar public places ont here and wondered why tis was happening. I called the provider and they said not to worry, this would happen it would show those connections who are closeby.
    BUT I still want to make my stuff secure. Alec would you please help do what I have to do? thanks much.

  14. Linda says:

    Alec: I got carried away and made a few errors, sorry. When I ask for help, tell me what I need to do to secure my things.

    Also, I have a second home and just hooked with another provider (Frontier.com) and they told me the modem and router are all in the same box. Sounds like I may need to secure this as well. My neighor told me the other day that she thinks she seen my id on her laptop. We live out in the country and have been dying for dsl. I had satellite before which was slower. Despite a few wise cracks by some on this, I have read a world of things that opened my fuzzy head.Linda

  15. Alec says:

    Linda - The only people who can help you secure a router are either the router manufacturer (if you bought one) or the router supplier (if leased from an ISP). Contact one of them with your concerns. Securing a router varies from one router to another as does the "degree" of security. My old DLink router had WPA encryption. My new LinkSys router has WPA2 (higher encryption).

    I understand your dilemma. There are too many people out there who are just finding out that steps even need to be taken. Router manufacturers used to be nothing more than sales entities. My DLink, for example, had absolutely NO instructions for enabling WPA encryption in the box when I bought it. I had to visit their website to find out how to do it. On the other hand, my LinkSys router had software in the box that "guided" an owner through the encryption enabling process. Some router manufacturers "care" about owner security. Others don't.

    So, try to find the website of the router manufacturer who made the router you use in your main home ... and contact Frontier.com for help with the modem/router in your 2nd home. Best of luck to you.

  16. fl6stringer says:

    I'm recently laid-off and could not possibly afford internet service/s in my name. Problem is, I perform most of my bill paying and transactions online. My neighbor (and good friend of my little family) pays handsomely for unlimited internet. He emphatically offered me access through his wireless signal and I am unfathomably grateful for this. I made this fact clear to him though I feel I should maybe emphasize this more. If allowing signals to float freely around for any to receive was so absolutely illegal, would our routers not be manufactured and hardwired to be SECURE and thus disallow such access? Why would levels of selectable security even be an option if that were the case? Besides, if I had the resources, I would assist with his payments. I am confident that he is in agreement. A thief is a thief, no matter how you spin it. Many people see the opportunity and have innocent intentions. Many more people take this same opportunity to abuse and exploit, frequently crossing that "gray line" toward a grossly illegal and deviant nature of activity. This nation has been aimed toward greed for so long that almost all have lost their way. Whatever happened to living, loving, sharing? There is no need for analogy pertaining to this subject. If you don't want to share your signal, don't. The only ones who would be angry or hateful toward such a simple thing are those filled with ignorance.... and GREED. Let's go ahead and throw in ill-will. In a nutshell, I feel fine with myself. I am also very, very, thankful to my generous friend. Look around and see how few and far between a friend like mine is....

  17. Alec says:

    To the poster using "you flippen thieves" as a moniker.

    You really need to lighten up. You're so angry that you've misattributed certain posts - like your #12 above. That wasn't Raymond, it was me. But, you and I are "slightly" in agreement when you said, "Every body should have the security already enabled when they first get the system from the provider."

    From the beginning, I've said that manufacturers (or providers) of wireless routers must bear some of the blame for the current situation. Older routers (like my original
    DLink) didn't provide instructions for enabling security measures. They just provided the equipment in a box with an implied "just plug it in and go" instruction. Most modern day manufacturers are wiser than their predecessors were.

    However, I wouldn't go so far as to say that manufacturers/providers sell routers with security already enabled. Some people don't want to use the security ... even though they probably should. And I certainly wouldn't want to "mandate" how someone else runs their online life. It's their business, not mine.

    BTW, I'm piggybacking a LOT more than I used to. I discovered my public library offers free community WIFI to anyone within range ... with download speeds in excess of 18mbps and upload speeds in excess of 11mbps. This really comes in handy since I design and monitor 3 high-level media sites (legal sites) - and the library is 10 times faster (at least) than my own ISP. In addition, I use free WIFI provided at my local SUBWAY restaurant.

    I feel fortunate to live in a city that has been referred to as the most "WIFI-friendly" city on the west coast (Portland, Oregon). There are so many people willing to share their connections (mostly businesses) that I can't drive 10 blocks in any direction without finding a connection.

  18. Robert H. says:

    I suppose No One has the knowledge that EVERY Cell Phone call you make is Open to anyone with a receiver that can catch it? Same with WiFi that is Not heavily secured; it is an Open Broadcast if not kept private in use. Phone Line companies had the same arguments when Cell started up. Illegal Usage they screamed. Now, over 69% of Amerians and most of the world uses open network cells that are Only protected by the Network coding of the company they pay for services. I only use a cell as the Government taped into all land lines before the 1960's were over.
    ALL Digital communications are open to Federal listening at all times in any case; encrypted or not.

  19. william says:

    Since my neighbor may be on a limited bandwidth plan using his wifi could very literally be costing him more money and that is stealing, no two ways about it. In principle, however, and money aside...would it be ok for me to take his car without permission if the door was open and the keys were inside? We can try to justify ourselves...or we can be honest. Using something...taking some thing, in this case bandwidth, is stealing if it is without permission of its rightful owner

  20. Quintilius says:

    EVERYTHING IN MODERATION & WITH DUE RESPECT. I think it's quite easy to see both sides of this issue. Currently I pay for my own internet connection, it's broadband & is hooked up to my desktop. However , I also have a laptop(notebook) that I use for travel & "prepping" it for the road (updating Windows, Norton & installing any apps I may need, etc..) was a real pain , as I had to climb behind hutch, unhook cable then pass it THROUGH the hutch , go around to reach in & pull it to a spot where it had enough slack to hook to notebook. (I'm aware of the various ways, I could make doing this, easier on myself , but for reasons I will not list here, I have not implemented any of those options as of yet)BUT what I DID do was check the area for a Wi-Fi sig & sure enough my neighbors signal is "bleeding" into my pad. How do I know it's his? cuz the network title is HIS NAME! On a whim , when I was asked for the password, I entered his name & BINGO - I was in/on. Being rather surprised at my success, the 1st thing I did was GET OFF it ! You see, I have no problem with the "borrowing" or "piggyback" concept, IF it's done in moderation & you show some respect to the person your "stealing" from.( but not so much that I wanted to ask his permission-ha!!) To that end, I WAITED till I knew my neighbor was in bed before re-connecting , so as not to SLOW him down. While I waited to hook back up , I selected "PUBLIC PLACE" as the "network" option , so my device would not share or be seeing by others(him) on the "network" I then changed my notebooks "name" to "SAFE" just in case my info slipped through somehow during the search or connection procedure. Aprox 2 hours later , I RE-CONNECTED , performed my updates & other "prepping" activities, making sure I was done , well before he would be up, let alone be using his p/c- and that's all she wrote. I continue to follow the same courteous & cautious guidelines every time I "share" his signal. It's a bit inconvenient to always insure he's off his pc & in bed before I "log on" but hey, it's worth the tradeoff for FREE WIRELESS not to mention, there hasn't been the slightest hint, of any kind, that he's privy to my covert operations. Just a little common sense & courtesy folks! Quintilius.

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