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

Published 3/1/08 (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. Oso Grande says:

    The Police can sit outside a home and pull your cordless phone signal to bust you and it was found within the limits of the law Per supreme court ruling due to the fact that the signal is public domain once broadcast into the air waves. SO why is this not Public domain ? Im saying it sure as heck is .

  2. peter says:

    i piggyback.i have been piggybacked.{kinky}

    the difference between robbing a house and using a FREE and open access point is just that-FREE!you can acess a wireless point thats not yours without even knowing
    it if your not say at all.you have to choose to rob a house!

    this is a cast the first stone issue.

    most likely at some pioint in your life or at least someone you love
    will access a free connection without even knowing it.

    jail time should be a case by case issue with exacts on what crime was actually committed.the only crime that i could possible see someone saying anything about
    when it comes to simply just use-that would be a billion dollar isp service
    screaming "we are loosing .000000000000000001% of 2.8billon dollars and it must be stopped!!!-quickly release 10000 murders from the prisons we own{yes prisons are becoming corporate giants} anyhoo...get them cells freed up for
    some folks who used ....free...uhh..bandwith.huh?

    home of the free
    land of the brave.

    this is a great topic.

    free bandwith for all. yes i agree also PUBLIC DOMAIN.
    if you can remember cb radio!! rgat was a blast!!!

  3. Alec says:

    Peter,

    If a person leaves his car unlocked with the keys in the ignition, and assuming the person KNEW it, that would be a stupid thing to do. But regardless of whether the person knew it or not, it doesn't give anyone the "right" to steal the car.

    Now ... no one I know of would "want" someone to steal their car. On bandwidth, however, there are some people who don't mind it at all. In some cases, there are even people who encourage others to use their bandwidth. And unless the SSID or some other identifier gives away the router-owner's intent, it's problematic to say whether a person is "stealing" bandwidth or just freely using "offered" bandwidth.

    The only bugaboo I have about piggybacking is the negligence of router manufacturers in giving owners a "simple" and "understandable" method to secure their routers. If this method was offered (and if the router couldn't be made active until after the owner "chose" whether to secure it or not), that would make the issue moot. In such a case, and if a person "chose" to leave their router insecure, it would be literally impossible to prove "theft."

    In the future, I hope router manufacturers become more responsible - and that ALL routers will be so engineered. You'd think they'd do this voluntarily out of respect for their consumer base. But, they don't. That's why, initially, I suggested a "law" might be necessary to "enforce" manufacturer responsibility. It took a law to enforce manufacturer responsibility in putting seat belts in automobiles, after all.

  4. peter says:

    alec,

    i kinda wrote what i was sying a little complicated.

    what i was trying to say was NOT that folks automatically have the right becuase folks dont know.

    what i was saying and ill clarify more
    is that folks all the time will use someone elses bandwith and not even know it.
    im talking about when my wife and i first moved into our new home and
    for a month my wife was using the laptop thinking i had hooked it up.the entire time she was using my neighbors network and she didnt know it.thats what i mean.thats why we cant make criminals out of folks who might use open bandwith.not only did my neighbor not know but neither did my wife.some of this technology is so good it just finds itself without you really trying.that little network thing in the cornr of my pc screen.the status indicator.my wife wouldnt even know what that was when it pops up.

    she cicks the E for explorer and goes!

    do u get what i was trying to say now.-pete

  5. Matt says:

    Guys you have to understand how property works, it is over regions. They are broadcasting the signal over other peoples property, and absolutely nothing to restrict it from other people using it. Not only is unfeasible to enforce piggy backing, but it's unethical. When someone broadcast a signal on your land, and they don't secure it's like leaving food on the street for people to eat. Sure now you can't eat that, but it's not on your property either. This is why all the houses, doors, and cars example are not related, because they are on you property.

  6. marcel says:

    Whats with all the time spent here about?! Unsecured wifi comes into my house... or out of my house... its free to use like the am radio waves. No big deal! Really, aren't there much more important things to discuss or work on?!

  7. peter says:

    hey marcel. first off i and so do others who posted
    before you agree with the fact that its broadcasted over your property anyway so who cares.
    BUT i was wondering something...if their is other things more important to do...
    then WHY ARE YOU HERE POSTING? NOT MUCH GOING ON?

    i do agree their is alot much more important things to do so please
    when you end world hunger or end the nuclear crisis let me know.

    thank you.

  8. Anna says:

    I'm doing it right now and im only 16 and can't buy wireless and stuff

  9. Diane says:

    I had secured wifi, but when Comcast came to fix some things (including internet) I no longer could get into my secured wifi, and could only get on it unsecured. It still shows with the security one, but I can't get on and have no idea what the password is, nor how to set up a new security one. The security always seems to be the big hangup for me many times. If someone wants to use my wireless (doesn't reach far) then they are undoubtedly a neighbor, and I don't care. Just as long as it's not dangerous to me.

  10. peter says:

    TIKITAI-just some random ifo i hope helps

    you need some kind of wifi tool. say a card you can plug into your usb port.

    or a card you can build right in. thats it. of course some drivers as well.
    this is where you will need to start.

    NO -your are not stealing anything.the signal passes through your property therfore you have rights to it.corporations want you to pay for what is free is whats going on.

    also their is no limits on wifi time.their are limits on whats called bandwidth.
    long story short.if you are signing on for emails and such then bandwidth is nothing to worry about. if your trying to play online games.i advise your own connection.

    yes if you bounce of someone elses router to use their internet connection if
    they know what they are doing they can see, not much, but will at least see what sites you visit and times you are on.BUT if they can do this they will just password you out.

    also yes their connection is on obviuosly or else you woulnt be able to connect.
    all this means is their router is on and running.are they actually using their computer
    who knows.if your quiestion is "CAN THE PEROSN BE ON AT THE SAME TIME YOU ARE?"
    the answer is YES. but still no big deal.

    also keep in mind alot of newer computer have wifi built in an dwill just search for an opne signal without you doing anything. look for this.

    also WI-FI in case you didnt know means- wireless fidelity.

    whats funny is all this domain talk when wi-fi is used most for radio frequences! LOL!

    hey i hope these tidbits have helped.

    any other help please ask.

    ALSO MARCEL DONT YOU HAVE ANYTHING BETTER TO DO THEN TO COME HERE AND POST ASKING US IF WE DO? IM ASKING YOU THAT SINCERELY. IM CURIOUS TO WHY FOLKS WASTE TIME WITH JUST FLAT OUT THOUGHTLESS QUESTIONS LIKE THAT.

    any other help please ask.

  11. Raymond says:

    TikiTai,

    Yes, if you are "borrowing" your neighbor's free wifi signal...there are ways for him or her to know that you are using it. All they would have to do is check their wireless router online management page and they would see that multiple individuals were actively connecting to their router signal. The question of whether you are actually "stealing" or in any way mis-appropriating their WiFi property has been the subject of much debate. I think it still remains pretty up in the air frankly. Various people tend to have pretty strong opinions on both sides of the divide.

  12. Alec says:

    Recently, a friend had me come over to "fix" her computer (her brother did some awful things to it - software wise). So, I fixed it. But she's not affluent at all (her computer is 8 years old) and has two special-needs kids who need to contact their teachers and/or case-workers from time to time. Anyway, when I came over to fix things, I brought my WIFI-ready laptop - and noticed there were 3 (out of about 12) signals in her area that were unsecured. So, I went to Office Max and bought her a USB-type WIFI modem ... and now she has "free" broadband internet for her kids. I used it to download a few driver files to fix her system problems. And now, the only thing the kids will use it for is emailing their teachers and such - using free web-based email addresses.

    Now ... here's a thought. The network I connected her to had a "name" assigned to the network. Most unsecured networks simply default to the name of the router - because its owner doesn't know how to configure it (and probably doesn't know that anything would NEED to be configured). Because the router had a name assigned to it, it tells me that the router owner knows how to set up a name - and if he/she knows how to set up a name, he/she knows enough to secure it (if they really wanted to).

    The city I live in is known as one of the most WIFI-friendly cities in the area. There are a LOT of unsecured WIFI signals to choose from. So, it could be there are a number of router owners out there who simply "don't care" whether anyone else uses their signal - unless they use it unwisely (downloading illegal content or high-bandwidth content). And I don't think most such router owners would care very much if others used their signals sparingly.

  13. peter says:

    "Meppergan Fortas Says:

    December 9th, 2009 at 11:28 am
    Bottom line for me is that the Supreme Court has ruled that open, non-encrypted wireless signals are free game for anyone who wants to use them.

    Enough said. Do what you want individually–don't let those with higher [public] morals dissuade you from clamping on to some free WiFi."

    HERE,HERE!!!! THATS THE BEST POST SO FAR.NONE MORE EVEN NEEDED.

    THANK YOU SO MUCH.

    also i wanna say that i leave my router open and i see 2 folks who use it all the time.
    i use to piggyback and now im blessed with my own system.

    FREE ONLINE FOR ALL,ESPECIALLY WHEN MY DAUGHTERS HOMEWORK REQUIRES HER TO GO ONLINE!!!! oh yeah and healthcare please. LOL!

  14. Alec says:

    Meppergan Fortas,

    Could you please cite the specific Supreme Court ruling you mentioned? In a brief check of recent Supreme Court rulings affecting WIFI, the only rulings I've been able to find deal with patent claims.

  15. Alec says:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Legality_of_piggybacking (FYI)

  16. Three Sigma says:

    This is a very good article and I wholeheately agree. It is well-written, balanced, and I suspect the author is an attorney. Those who disgree should read it carefully.

    As an attorney myself, and after reading all of the ridiculous comments about "theft", I now know why laymen aren't allowed to practice law. Unfortunately, subtleties of language, human motives, and legalities are simply beyond most people with a "black/white" mentality.

  17. Alec says:

    Three Sigma,

    Yes - and with a bibliography including 41 references, the Wikipedia article is probably as good as it gets - and is written in language any lay-person could understand.

    Question ... are you aware of "any" U.S. Supreme Court ruling that addresses the legality of piggybacking - or are Supreme Court decisions relative to WIFI limited to patent arguments and such?

  18. Alec says:

    There's a new dimension to the piggybacking scenario. For police, it used to be easy to catch (if they wanted to) piggybackers simply by observing persons parked by curbs in neighborhoods (or in parking lots) using laptops in their cars. But, it's not so easy anymore. In my area, at least 4 different wireless providers are providing 3G or 4G connections via USB modems - and some even sell WiMAX-ready laptops that don't even need a USB modem (it's internal). In short, persons parked by a curb or in a parking lot and using a laptop could be law-abiding citizens using WiMAX connections they're paying for. And, it would probably not take too many incidents of police confronting law-abiding citizens before the practice of confronting persons in cars became "problematic."

  19. hex says:

    I was thinking about upgrading my neighbors router so I could leech better.
    http://lifehacker.com/178132/hack-attack-turn-your-60-router-into-a-600-router
    But I'm not going to.

  20. Piggy says:

    I have NO PROBLEM with an open DSL connection

    My netgear - is open ALL the time.

    Folks park outside, underneath the shade of the trees....and the little light goes,blink, Blink, BLINK.

    I pay for a 24 7 connection,,,it is PAID FOR... My use is about 20 minutes a day...who would not want to share?

    Somehow, a backdoor twitch in my annus ...indicates that ATT or VERIZON moles starts threads with sort of "non sharing" BS.

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