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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. Traciatim says:

    I don't like using the 'door open' analogy either because it isn't the same thing. If someone has open WiFi and then also their router is set to broadcast their SSID I would put forward that it's similar to leaving your door open with a big sign hanging there that says 'Stop in, Stay a while'. That's a much better analogy. I assume any connection that is like this to be a nice person allowing people to share their bandwidth.

    On the other hand, if they have WEP enabled, and you crack it . . . even if it only takes a second or two, you are now stealing. To everyone, if you don't want people on your network just disable SSID broadcasts and use WPA or better. This will stop most of the free loaders.

    Just like locking your doors when you go out, if someone REALLY wants in your house, just like your network, they will get in. If you've done enough to make yourself less of a target than someone else, that's all you can do.

  2. Jeffery says:

    My question is; can I without infraction, share my wifi with my neighbor?? Am I breaking any laws?? If I offer and allow them to use it?

  3. Traciatim says:

    Jeffery: No, no laws stop you sharing your things. Your terms of service with your ISP may have rules in it restricting such behaviour but they would have to prove you are doing it since they can't tell if the machine connected to your router is 2 feet away or 100 feet away. If they can get a signal, you can share it.

  4. Traciatim says:

    @pit:

    A much better analogy is if you are walking down the street and you hear someones music because their window is open. You've now used their electricity and committed copywrite infringement. That's much more like the scenario than the 'if the door isn't locked it's OK to steal'.

  5. Jake Stichler says:

    Listening in to music that someone else is legally listening to is not copyright infringement. If you'd stick a microphone in their window and record it for your own use, then sure.

  6. gulnar says:

    hey does height matter ..earlier i used to get wireless connection when i lived in another building on the 3rd floor but now i live a little further and on the 11th floor but i get no wireless signal (unsecured ) in particular so does height matter or is that there is no router any where closer to where i live ...is it also possible that if i lived in the same building on the 5 th floor i could access wireless connection

  7. Englishgirl says:

    Let me put the otherside of stealing a neighbours bandwidth through an unsecured router.

    I am not a computer techie and had no idea about encryption (my ignorance does not entitle YOU to steal from me). My ISP allows me only 5GB of usage per month for a set amount, therefore when my monthly bills started to skyrocket, and since I am on a limited budget, I wondered why.

    The most likely explanation according to my ISP was that someone within a 50 foot radius of my home was stealing through the signal on my router, and I therefore now have an encryption key entered. Needless to say, though, I still have to find the money to pay the bill this thief has incurred by downloading heavy files at my expense.

    Now, do you bandwith thieves have a clear conscience? I hope not.

  8. Wi-Fi RULEZ says:

    If you are using the connection for normal things (i.e. E-Mail, YouTube, Games, etc.), then there really is no harm... I'm using my neighbor's connection right now! They don't even care.

  9. Angry Neighbor says:

    I can't believe the nerve of kids these days! The boy next door (who constantly wears this "Wi-Fi RULEZ" shirt) constantly makes comments to me like "Hey, I used your wireless signal to read my E-Mail last night!" or "I sure do love watching those YouTube videos, thanks to your wireless router!" and "I can't get enough of those internet Games that I love so damned much". After each comment of the like, I plead with him asking him to please stop, and telling him that I don't want him using my wireless signal.
    He just laughs at me, as if it were all a big joke and responds "Good one, you don't even care!" And just the other day he continued to say "I'm going to go post about how you don't mind my pirating of your internets, thanks for not caring!"

    I was so upset about it, that I went inside and immediately did 3 angry push-ups, followed by an angry nap that lasted nearly a month. Now that I woke up, I thought to share my experiences with all of you.

  10. Traciatim says:

    Angry Neighbour, that's a great story . . . Ever think that he's just making fun of you because you;re advertising your free Wi-Fi by having your SSID broadcast and your router configured to give access to anyone who asks for it?

    Set up WPA, have a decent sized password, and set it to only give your MAC address an IP when requested . . . now you are no longer a target.

    Perhaps pick up the manual that explains how to set it all up.

  11. Jake Stichler says:

    Angry Neighbor, like Traciatim said, you're advertising it. Frankly, the fact that you *know* he's stealing your internet and you're not doing anything about it kind of leaves you with little room to do much complaining. If you're not very technically adept, I'm sure you have a young family member or relative who could easily take care of securing your network for you.

    Although I'm of the "you're advertising it, so I'm using it" mentality (where do you think my internet access has come from for the past year?), just the fact that this little moron is being so damn cocky about it, and the fact that you told him to stop, makes me wish you would just call the darn cops and file charges for theft of services. It's kind of like harassment - you told him to stop, and he didn't, ergo he's in deep.

    If there ever were a time where I had my own internet connection, and somehow forgot to secure my wireless, and during that time someone told me they were using my internet with an attitude like that, I'd have the state po-pos on the line darn quick. It's all about the attitude. On the other hand, if they came over and said hey, I really can't afford my own cable and I noticed you're running your network unsecured and do you think you could continue doing so... I would probably at least try to work something out with them - let them pay part of the bill or something. Of course, then I'd immediately secure it and give them the key.

    Also, just noticed, with regards to Traciatim's suggestion to "set it to only give your MAC address an IP when requested," you'd have to watch out if you start using, say, an XBOX 360, or an iPhone, or some other device on your wireless network, you'd have to add those MAC addresses in as well.

  12. Chiya says:

    I've been trying for over a week to get the router to work (I followed the instructions but it kept coming up with the helpful message of "There has been an error connecting to the network.")

    The second time I called the number they told me to do something and it ended up resetting the network "dlink" and no password.

    I figured I've been stealing my neighbours internet for a couple of weeks so I don't really mind if they use mine for a couple of weeks. I'm just wondering...will I have to pay more if they are using my network or will it just go a tiny tiny bit slower?

  13. Cyndi Douglas says:

    Think about this, almost all places of business that we get our utilities from, satelite, banks etc. When they send you a bill try to get you to go paper free. They want you to have your account billed and accessed on the internet. Wouldnt it just make since to have free internet then every one would want to go paperfree.

  14. Englishgirl says:

    Hiya Chiya (Lol),

    It depends on whether you have an ISP that allows unlimited download for a set monthly cost. My ISP does not, and that is how I noticed that my bills were getting higher....and higher!!!

    I pay ����19 per month for 5GB of download and I was getting bills of ����48.

  15. Jake Stichler says:

    Wow, Englishgirl! 19 pounds for 5GB is expensive as heck! I wouldn't even pay 19 worthless american dollars for that amount. Do you have any other viable ISP options?

  16. reayn.n.snow says:

    SO ALL OF MY NEIGHBORS HAVE UNPROTECTED WIFI BUT NONE OF THEM ARE CLOSE ENOUGH TO DECENTLY PICK UP OFF OF PLUS THE MANY TREE'S IS THERE SOMETHING LIKE TIN FOIL OR SOMETHING I COULD USE TO PICK UP MORE OF THE SIGNAL?

  17. Jake Stichler says:

    Reayn,

    This really isn't the place to be asking that. There's plenty of information elsewhere online... you may want to look into the tin foil Pringles can method.

  18. Traciatim says:

    Reayn.N.Snow, depending on your network card you can sometimes get external antennas that will increase your range dramatically, just search for something like WiFi Antenna on any search engine. If your WiFi card cannot accept an antenna then you are probably stuck paying for your own service, once you do make sure you secure it unless you want to share it.

  19. Automan says:

    If you get free internet access, it is better to use it for safe activities like checking your mail etc. and not like downloading porn and wasting the bandwidth. Different countries have differing laws that control the wireless access and play as per the law of your land and be safe :)

  20. Randy says:

    Your opinion on accessing your neighbors internet is in the grey area?
    If your neighbor does not lock his house, do you have a right to enter?
    If I leave my keys in the car, is it ok for my neighbor to drive it?

    According to your standard, it is the same thing has hacking someones internet. You know you don't pay the bill, but you use it anyway, you are stealing!

    It's not a subject that is open for opinion! Stealing is clearly defined as such, so laws would apply if a person was so led to prosecute.

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