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. mepperganfortas says:

    I forgot one other thing.

    Even though we're trying by passing hundreds more restrictive laws every year you simply can't "child proof" everything in this world, everywhere, at all times.

    You need to use some common sense, too--although I think that pretty much died years and years ago.

  2. Alec says:

    When I was in elementary school, a teacher came up to me one day, pointed out a math problem I did wrong on an assignment, and asked, "Alec, if you were having difficulty with this problem, why didn't you ask for help?" That's all fine and dandy ... IF a student was having "difficulty." But what about students who do the problem without seeing any difficulty and are wrong anyway?

    Common sense is similar. Problem is, when it comes to computers, the great unwashed masses out there have little in "common" with those who DO understand computers. "Common" sense, when it comes to computers, isn't all that "common."

    Netgear included a setup CD with my new router. They probably buy CDs in bulk and I suspect their per-CD cost was under a quarter each. And this setup CD walked users through the security setup procedure ... allowing users the option, if they chose, to bypass security setup procedures. Point is, being a "responsible" manufacturer isn't going to put any manufacturer in the poorhouse. What it WILL do is enlighten the clueless to their security options. And if my clientele (as a system builder) is any judge, there are a lot more "clueless" people out there than those in the know. In light of this, asking manufacturers to spring for 25 cents per router (which they'd add to the cost anyway) isn't all that much to ask for.

  3. james mcneilly says:

    How do i protect my computer from piggybackers.I'm not a computer nerd so any help would be appreciated

  4. Traciatim says:

    Jame, read your manual for your router and it should explain setting up security. You computer manual and/or wireless card also should have an explanation. You could also search the model of your router and "guide to secure wireless" or some other search terms.

    If all else fails, buy some beer and ask someone who knows over to do it for you and pay them with a couple of beer/wine/other recreational substances or activities of your choice.

    If you are setting things up and you wonder which type of security system to use, repeat after me . . .

    WPA, not WEP.
    WPA, not WEP.
    WPA, not WEP.

  5. Hank Hill says:

    I am piggybacking internet right now and have been for about 3 weeks since my bro bought a lttle acer laptop to use for school. Seeing as how we live in the country this was an unexpected but greatly apprecaited suprise (getting internet). I don't know all about the moral conflicts but I do know that if one wanted to one could secure your network connection. Yet it is not, I use this connection to check stock symbols, news, youtube and guitar tabs and just about everything except credit card accounts and my scottrade account. I know it's probally wrong what I'm doing but I really do apprecaite what I have been given and I'm thankful. What can I say? I love it!

  6. Alec says:

    James,

    If your router came with a setup CD, use it. If it didn't, Google the manufacturer's name and see if there is downloadable setup software for your model. If not, and if your router came only with a quick-start card and no manual (like my DLink), then do a generic Google search for your router and model number with "security" as another search term.

    As Traciatim said, WPA encryption is better than WEP encryption. Some routers give you a choice between the two. There's also WPA2 encryption, like with my Netgear router, and that's even better. Good luck.

  7. Raymond says:

    You know, I'm not sure why the popular wireless routers of Linksys, Netgear, and D-Link don't already come pre-installed and automatically set up with web encryption enabled.

    Oftentimes you have to affirmatively select the encrypted option to protect your wireless router from neighborhood wireless piggybackers...it's not already automatically enabled when you plug it in and hit the start button.

    Sort of like the Windows Network Firewall option...why isn't that option already enabled and active by default? Who WOULDN'T want to have that defense mechanism already up and at the ready when they connect to the Internet?

  8. Alec says:

    Hank,

    Judging by some of the replies made to my earlier posts, some people probably think I'm a stuck-up sticky-beak about wireless router security (grin). I'm not. Because I have a WiMax connection, I _can_ take my modem anywhere. But sometimes, like yesterday, it wasn't feasible. So, yesterday, I piggybacked off an insecure Belkin router while having lunch at a cafe (no, it wasn't their router).

    Like you, on the rare occasions I piggyback, I use it for simple browsing and email checking. And, I don't feel like I'm immoral doing it. The only time I feel piggybacking itself is "immoral" is when people use it for large-file uploads and downloads that rob significant bandwidth (and speed) away from the router owner - especially if it involves downloading anything the owner could be sued or prosecuted for (kiddie porn, movie rips, etc.).

    The only niggly I have with wireless routers are SOME (but not all) manufacturers who don't realize that the overwhelming majority of computer users are just that - "users" (not geeks). Geeks know how to secure a router. Many ordinary "users" do not ... unless they have some sort of "simple" set of instructions (or setup CD) to guide them along those lines.

    My old DLink router only had a quickstart card, ie., plug this into that, this into that, etc., and no mention of security. Because I'm a bit of a geek, I knew there had to be some sort of security scenario. There was ... but it was only mentioned online on a support page only geeks would visit. My new Netgear router was the opposite - a great setup CD that walked through the security steps (and even checked for firmware updates). Hehe, walk up to most "users" and ask them to define the word "firmware."

    ==================================

    Raymond,

    Let me answer your last question first, "Who WOULDN'T want to have that defense mechanism already up and at the ready when they connect to the Internet?"

    Answer - libraries, coffee houses, hotels/motels, apartment buildings/complexes, and a number of other businesses that want to offer free WIFI access to customers in order to attract them. My local Safeway grocery store has free WIFI in their deli area. And, there are a few generous people out there who know they could secure their routers but CHOOSE not to for any number of personal reasons.

    "Choice" is the key here. And I think every router owner has a right to KNOW they have security choices.

    ==================================

    Just a humorous aside. I travel a lot, using free WIFI offered at the hotels/motels where I stay to keep in contact with friends and clients. And in my experience, Motel6 has some of the worst "free WIFI" connections in the hospitality industry.

    Recently, I stayed in a Motel6 not _too_ far from my home. I checked into my room, plugged in my laptop, and got the dreaded "one-bar" (limited or no connectivity) connection. In my case it was NO connection. So, I got ticked off and drove home - got my WiMax modem and wireless router - and drove back to my motel room.

    The free WIFI offered by Motel6 used the SSID of "Motel6." So, everyone TRYING to connect to their router would see that SSID name in their list of available networks. Well, hehe, I plugged in my WiMax modem (5-bar connect) and plugged my router into it. I disabled encryption and gave my router the SSID name - MOTEL-6-SUX (grin). I have no idea whether anyone logged onto my router - but if they did, I hope they told the manager.

  9. Raymond says:

    Alec,

    Hehe...funny Motel 6 story there. You sneaky fella.

    Also, when you refer to a WiMax modem...you aren't referring to the new fangled wireless technology still being developed are you? I believe WiMax is a new long distance wireless signal system that allows for the transmit of Internet wifi signals in the range of tens to hundreds of miles. You're just talking about a regular Wifi modem right?

  10. Alec says:

    Clear.com (also Clearwire.com). WiMax and WiFi are somewhat different. WiFi signals are signals broadcast to/from wireless routers. WiMax signals are broadcast to/from cell towers located throughout a given service district. They offer two levels of service ... one using a tiny USB plugin WiMax modem (yuk) ... and one using a larger tower modem (about the size of a cable modem). I use the tower and get faster speeds from it than I did from my prior cable Internet provider - for $10 less per month (grin). However, I sometimes travel outside my service area and rely on WiFi at hotels/motels. In the particular case mentioned above, the Motel6 location was just within my service area. Lucky me (grin).

  11. Alec says:

    Raymond,

    I use Clear (eg., Clear.com or Clearwire.com) WiMax. A WiMax connection allows a WiMax modem to communicate to/from a net "transceiver" mounted on a cell tower in a given service area. WiFi is just a computer connecting wirelessly to a router. Both are wireless. Both are line-of-sight type communications. But WiMax signals are more powerful than WiFi signals ... though, to my knowledge, they're more localized based on cell tower locations. I've never heard of a WiMax connection over any great distance. But as you said, the technology is still new.

    I'd guess that 5 years from now, DSL and Cable (and even FiOS) will be close to obsolete. WiMax infrastructure is so much cheaper. I used to have cable internet. Now, I have speeds greater than cable for $10 less a month.

  12. Ross says:

    In the terms of "piggybacking" I feel I should bring to people's awareness that not all people are aware that they are doing it.

    For instance, my wife works at a college and occasionally brings home a laptop to work on. She is not the most "tech savvy" person in the world, though I am somewhat of a computer geek myself. When she turns the laptop on, it automatically connects to the first available unrestricted wireless connection. This is not my wireless connection (as I don't have one, I am on an old-school wired cable modem currently as I don't own a laptop to work on), but a neighbors. I don't know who owns the network (ingeniously called "Motorola"), but it works. At my behest, she tried to turn off that connection, so that she wouldn't be piggybacking (as I consider it a moral gray, typically best to stay away from those methinks) but the computer wouldn't let her (at least without a warning every 2 seconds about how it isn't connected, until we got fed up with it and left it on).

    Now, I postulate that, laptop owners and/or users may often find that it is easier to allow the computer to simply connect, rather than deal with turning it off, let alone if they even know how to turn it off.

    So, I agree that broadcasting an unrestricted wireless connection is like not just leaving your door unlocked, but leaving it open with a big neon sign saying, "Come in, Make yourself at home, grab a bite to eat, and feel free to take a souvenir or 10" I do consider it a moral gray spot, and tend to avoid those, though I will piggyback from time-to-time.

    And, the moral of the story is: wireless connection owners aren't the only people that don't understand what is going on. They need educated about security risks. But, laptop users are also users that likely don't understand what is happening. To them, they could simply turn the computer on, have internet, and think "Awesome, the computer connects to the internet all on its own!"

  13. Alec says:

    Ross,

    Funny note. A coworker of mine was bragging about getting free broadband via piggybacking off her next-door neighbor. I know her husband, a technophobe (snicker) who doesn't even use a computer ... and asked if I could come over for a visit. The wife was away and I asked if I could look at her computer. No problem for him ... so, I switched on her desktop system (which has a wireless NIC card in an open slot). Sure enough, she was in fact getting free broadband from her next-door neighbor -- hehe -- a branch of the county library (which encourages free use anyway).

    The way she "brags" about it at work, it's almost as if she feels she's doing something evil and "getting away" with it. Anyhoo, I explained things (as best I could) to her husband and asked him never to mention it (about me taking a peek). I figure if she wants to brag about it (or likes feeling naughty, hehe), what the heck -- why burst her bubble? ;)

  14. Raymond says:

    I remember the first time I "borrowed" my apartment neighbor's free WIFI internet signal. I felt like a petty criminal...but in a good way oddly. I felt refreshingly sneaky...hehe

    But then I found out everyone else had already been doing it for years and that the practice wasn't anything new....piggy backing thereafter lost its excitement and became more of a cost saver than anything else.

  15. Alec says:

    Raymond,

    For me, piggybacking has always been a once-in-a-blue-moon activity - only when all else fails - and only to do bandwidth-light stuff like checking email or light browsing.

    Here's a thought for those who choose to leave their router insecure, however. If you have any other device that's part of your "network," it's possible for a piggybacker to access it. My HP laser printer, for example, is part of my network. If I'm upstairs using my laptop and want to print something, the printout will be waiting for me when I go back downstairs. Imagine waking up some morning to see your printer tray full of vile printouts from piggybacking porn-vendors (sigh).

    In theory, though, I could go insecure and still be secure (in a way). My Netgear router allows me to limit network access by Mac address. So, I could enter the Mac addresses for my printer and my laptop to keep others out - unless the piggybacker is good at guessing Mac addresses (grin).

  16. Raymond says:

    I would advise wireless router owners to change the default admin log ins and passwords as well. Too often they leave the default settings unchanged, allowing curious cats like me to run a quick test and gain easy access out of curiosity sake.

    But the thought of someone gaining access to my wireless printer and printing stuff out remotely is rather creepy.

  17. John Smith says:

    I use my neighbor's wi-fi so that I can say FUCK OBAMA.

  18. t says:

    Here where I live(downtown Panama). All the casinos, hotels & schools have unsecure wifi. Just for the completele convience of it. Ofcourse we all know & they tell ya do not send important stuff over the net. Ofcourse they offer secure lines.
    The students do not need to pay for internet, casino guests & hotel stayers can send quick emails.

    In all the time I have lived here, there has never once been a "breech" to where someone's info has been stolen.

    Mind you I do PAY for my internet, but I can go anywhere in the city with my car & have internet(yes I have a PC in my car also), thanks to all the schools, hotels & such.

  19. Mr Jones says:

    Stop beaming your electromagnetic waves onto my property if you don't want me to use them!

    It is MY home, I did not trespass onto YOUR property, or hack your codes. An electrmagnetic wave entered my property which coincidentally allows me to surf the web. Being on my property, I choose to use it if I like. You don't like? Aim your energy waves somewhere elso or set up a password!!

  20. Leroy says:

    I used to only use other unsecured wireless networks when I first moved in and that's all, and I only used it for basic surfing it was slow because I got horrible reception. I think that using other unsecured wireless networks is ok as long as you don't abuse of it. My wireless network is secured with WPA2 and the strongest encryption algorithm which is AES. But later I might add MAC address filtering along with not broadcasting my SSID. And I was hoping I can get my router to be hidden that way it can have the maximum security but then my ipod touch wont be able to connect if i make my network hidden.

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