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?

Disclaimer: Discover is a paid advertiser of this site.
Reasonable efforts are made to maintain accurate information. See the Discover online credit card application for full terms and conditions on offers and rewards.

Feed for this Entry

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

  1. Traciatim says:

    Randy, no, that's not the analogy. For a network that is open to all and broadcasting it's SSID the analogy would have to be this:

    If you neighbour leaves his door open and has a big sign that says "Everyone Welcome, Make yourself at home!" is it OK to enter?
    If you leave your keys in your car with a big sign on the window that says "Community car, feel free to drive" is it OK to drive?

    Hacking someones locked connection, I agree is wrong. People who don't secure their connection and advertise it's availability a person can only assume the intent was to share the connection since that it what is being advertised.

  2. landdmade says:

    Going into an unlocked house is wrong. But dancing to your neighbor's music or fixing your car by their garage light is a crime to most reasonably mind people.

  3. Traciatim says:

    Are you sure you didn't mean "isn't a crime" not "is a crime". I'm pretty sure if I walk down my driveway using the light from my next door neighbours outside light I'm not going to be arrested for theft.

  4. Nick says:

    I share my wireless net connection with the name "Free - Be Nice". So in your people's terms, my house has a sign on it that says, "come on in, make yourself at home". I also gave the macs to all of my devices priority. In the event that someone is not nice, under my terms of course, then I'll kick them off. Until then.....happy e-mail checking.

  5. Jano says:

    just think...,...,...and think...,...,....I have already read report about..: if I left door open,it means that someone could get in and get whatever he wants...,, My opinion is YES... Because you should not left that door open.
    Everyone should SECURED everything what he likes and is valuable for him...
    Do NOT forget: We are living in 21 century...
    We all like like something for free,don't we?

  6. Alec says:

    I don't piggyback. But I know those who do. And, of those who do piggyback, I know none of them who abuse bandwidth. They use it merely for light browsing and email. Of course, they don't use MY connection because it's encrypted and password protected (grin).

    The problem, as I see it, is that - over time - we've become a lazy culture. Most people want "turnkey" everything. Just plug it in and, if it works, fine. Frankly, I'm surprised that the ISP industry hasn't put its collective foot down ... asking for legislation that requires a menu setup procedure to encrypt and password-protect every router manufactured. No setup, no throughput - period - unless you're willing to sign a document stating that you CHOOSE to operate an unprotected network.

    That kind of legislation might actually work. I think the vast majority of unprotected network owners are oblivious to piggybacking - unless their service is so adversely affected that they complain to someone who would wise them up. I also think that vast majority would take no issue with the completion of a "menu setup procedure" to secure their network - and would probably welcome it if it was "simple."

  7. Jimmie Twofingers says:

    The basic idea here is that the bandwidth is being SHARED, not STOLEN. When someone STEALS something from someone else, it is no longer available to the person from which it was stolen. However, SHARING something is a whole different ball of wax. Thus, the 'legal' or 'moral' implications of open wireless feeds are not actually in the same realm as THEFT per se and need only protections placed when and if the person doing the sharing sees fit. Secondly, EDUCATION of how bandwidth is produced and collected via various methods--routers, transceivers, transmitters and so forth will allow OWNERS of hardware to make sensible decisions. But just willy-nilly making 'law' as remedy to a perceived and subjective problem is an invalid and potentially dangerous idea.

  8. Alec says:

    Well, regarding "When someone STEALS something from someone else, it is no longer available to the person from which it was stolen," it's a neat argument - but one that falls on deaf ears even in the realm of intellectual property law. In the real property realm, using another person's property ... even if the original owner retains possession ... is referred to as "conversion." And conversion of property without the owner's consent is a crime. Property owners are legally entitled to the "full value" of their property. And anytime property is used, its full value goes down.

    Requiring router manufacturers to implement menu setup procedures would not be an intrusive law ... as long as the ultimate decision of whether or not to secure the router is left up to the owner. It would certainly be less intrusive that mandatory seatbelt laws.

  9. Alec says:

    Just wanted to expand upon my last post - to clarify the difference between SHARED and STOLEN.

    If I had a music CD and someone "ripped" it, creating 1,000 MP3 files of the original content, the music CD itself would still play the same - albeit with the very minor wear and tear on the CD caused by the rip. This situation would "seem" to support a SHARE vs. STEAL concept since the value of the CD remains unchanged ... and since possession of the CD remains with its owner. However, by the same token, the creator of the music on that CD (or the people creators license) have a right to royalty income on every instance in which the CD is rendered. So, while SHARING the content of a CD doesn't affect the CD owner's right to property, it does affect the creator's right to profit from their creation (aka "STEALING") because the existence of the music on the CD conveys TWO ownership rights, not just one.

    That logic falls completely flat, however, when discussing piggybacking. If I had an internet connection that, on average, gave me 3mbit of download bandwidth. that entire 3mbits belongs to me - to split between two or more computers owned by me via a wireless router. But, as soon as someone piggybacks that connection without my permission, they have "converted" (not shared) part of my bandwidth to their OWN purposes - devaluing the worth of the connection that I paid for.

    To use an analogy, let's assume I drive a car that gets 30 miles per gallon of gas. However, if someone (without my permission) hitched a trailer to the back of my car - and my mileage went down to 20 miles per gallon - that's not sharing, it's theft. Likewise, if someone piggybacked my 3mbit connection (without my permission) to the point where I only had 2mbits I could use - that's not sharing, it's theft.

    The whole argument of piggybacking boils down to owner choice. Some router owners are more than willing to share their bandwidth. Others would rather not. But ALL routers are provided to consumers in an unprotected state - requiring the owner to perform a manual setup procedure to change that status - a procedure that many people are a bit "dense" about. My suggestion of a "menu-based" setup procedure simply removes the "dense" argument ... allowing the owner to make the ultimate decision on whether or not to share bandwidth. And assuming the menu setup procedure is kept simple, it forces no "learning curve" on the owner. To secure or not to secure is the first question a router owner should answer. And by implementing a menu setup procedure, it merely assures that the question is "asked."

  10. Jack says:

    Man, if only the world was as ethical or moral as this blog! There wouldn't be any crime, trouble, or strife at all.

    Look, the way I see it is like someone who leaves [everyday] a tray of money or cookies on an open tray outside their house.

    It's there for the picking.

    Jeesh. You people need to join a convent or something.

  11. Traciatim says:

    Jack, in that sense since many people broadcast their SSID it would be similar to someone posting on an online ad that they have a change tray in their yard that is free for people to take change . . . and then getting upset that people take change.

  12. Alec says:

    Jack,

    If a person left a tray of money outside their door, chances are they KNEW money was on the tray when they left it. With wireless routers, chances are that computer illiterate people DON'T KNOW their connection was left open.

    My comments have less to do with morality than they have to do with "making allowances" for the people clueless to what they're doing.

    Now, this is just me. But if I was walking down the street and noticed a guy's pants zipper was wide open, I wouldn't just snicker and keep on walking. I'd tell the guy. If afterward, the guy decided to continue walking down the street with his fly undone, that would be his decision. But at least, by making the guy aware of the situation, he was aware that a decision had to be made.

  13. Eric says:

    i have a open linksys. i want to know if someone uses it will i pay more or lose speed?

  14. Alec says:

    Eric,

    It depends upon where you are and what ISP you're using. In the USA, most broadband users have become used to "flat fee" service. Elsewhere in the world, some users pay not only for the connection but for the bandwidth. So, in some parts of the world, leaving a router insecure can cause a somewhat immediate cash drain.

    The real worry for most people are those who piggyback to perform illegal activities - ie., downloading movies and music. For example, if a piggybacker decided to download a bunch of music by a bunch of new artists ... and if the RIAA tracked those downloads ... they'd come knocking at YOUR door to confiscate YOUR computer and periperals (and sue you, too). Or, if the piggybacker decided to download multiple movies, you might reach a bandwidth level where your ISP will cut you off. The other worry is that some piggybackers might be savvy computer hackers who attempt, through the wireless network, to gain access to your computer ... stealing sensitive ID information to use elsewhere (passwords, credit card info, etc., etc.).

    Losing speed is guaranteed in any event. It might only be a slight loss that's barely noticeable if the piggybacker is just doing routine browsing or checking his/her email. Or, it could be VERY noticeable if they do a lot of downloading or uploading of files.

    P.S. My very old DLink router just died. I got a new Netgear router ... and the very first thing I did was implement WPA2 protection. But that's just me. I suspect most persons using insecure wireless routers will encounter only simple, slight, and benign use of their bandwidth. Problem is, these router users are "whistling past the graveyard," so to speak. It only takes one impolite or malicious piggybacker to spoil things ... sometimes in a major way.

  15. vargas says:

    Silly analogies aside, out of all of these comments, nygrump said it best and I agree with that poster - if your wireless internet/radiation waves are invading my living space - which I did not ask for, and you don't bother to lock down your network you can bet your bottom dollar I'll use your internet connection.

    All the prissy moralists can go jump in a lake.

  16. Alec says:

    vargas,

    I don't think moralism enters into it. People who don't bother to lock down their network, knowing they have the option to do so, probably SHOULD be used (to teach them a lesson). But what about people who don't KNOW they have anything to "bother" about? I don't think that wising up people like that is being "prissy." It's just being a decent human being.

  17. Angel says:

    I have problems with the "leaving your door unlocked" analogy. There is a door, and just by walking through the door,(as simple as that is) you would be breaking and entering. An unsecured wireless signal is more like a homeowner with all of their belongings on the the front lawn. They have not only taken no steps to prevent "theft" but they have "put it out there" for everyone to have access to it.

  18. Alec says:

    Angel,

    There's one overriding thing to keep in mind. There are a few people who understand computers and peripheral devices inside and out. But, as a semi-retired system builder, I can tell you that the majority of people who buy and own computers/peripherals are ignorant to how and why they work. All they want to know is that when they push the power button, their computer comes on ... and when they use keyboard and mouse, that the things they "expect" to happen will happen.

    Knowing this, many (but not all) wireless router manufacturers have "dumbed down" the buying process. And when you open up the box with the router in it, you only find the most basic of "quick start" instructions. For example:

    1) Plug one end of an ethernet cable into your cable/DSL/wireless modem and the other end into the #1 ethernet socket on the router.

    2) Plug one end of another ethernet cable into the #2 ethernet socket on the router and the other end into your computer's ethernet port.

    3) Plug in the router's power cord.

    In short, they don't discuss "security" issues on a quick-start card. And unless someone wises the customer up that security issues even exist, they won't know. Customers will just follow the quickie instructions and say "Wow!" when they make their first wireless connection - totally clueless to their unsecured network.

    My first wireless router, a DLink model, had such a quick-start card in the box - and nothing else. Fortunately for me, I knew security issues existed and was able to remedy them. When the router "died" recently, I bought a new Netgear model ... and it came with a menu-driven setup CD that walked me through the security setup procedures. I personally didn't "need" to be walked through them (grin). But that is EXACTLY the way a "responsible" manufacturer should sell a wireless router - knowing that the majority of computer/peripheral owners are clueless to these issues.

    Here's yet another analogy. It would be easy to criticize a homeowner for leaving a door or window open. But what if the homeowner was "blind?" In the wireless router ownership world, trust me - there are a lot more "blind" owners than "sighted" owners. And a simple menu-driven setup CD, like with my Netgear model, would pull the blinders off.

  19. Traciatim says:

    Alec, So what if they are ignorant? If you don't know that drinking and driving is illegal and you plow through a kindergarten is lack of knowledge a defence?

    Sticking with analogies, angel forgot one step, by broadcasting SSID they also have a sign on their lawn that says 'FREE STUFF'.

    It is up to the person to secure their stuff, whether physical or not. Personal responsibility is the key here. By leaving it unsecure and broadcasting it is implied permission to use, unless that SSID is called "DO_NOT_USE" or something similar.

  20. mepperganfortas says:

    Again, unsecured WiFi, to me, isn't just leaving the door unlocked...it's leaving it unlocked with a neon sign on the lawn that says "Door Unlocked--Come on In--Free Stuff Inside!."

    Maybe a better analogy would be like one of those painted free bicycle experiments on various college campuses....you take a spin and leave the bike, anywhere, for someone else to do the same. More than a few of those were stolen and repainted, too!

    Other tags include: "Nice" and "Naive."

    Unless you're using so much bandwith to run a server nextdoor or you've got kids playing X-Box 24/7 I don't see much harm in it, myself.

Leave a Reply



If you liked this site, please Add To Bookmark and/or Subscribe To A FeedReader

Search this site