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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. Lily says:

    The only time I ever stole wireless was when Time Warner decided that my building didn't deserve service any more - and wouldn't send anyone to repair it. Their solution? "Have you tried unplugging and plugging your router?" Since I needed Internet access for work, I ended up using the network from the building behind mine.

    I don't want to say that the wireless owner was asking for it, per se, but people should be aware that others can piggyback off their wireless networks if they're not secured. Plus, Time Warner created a horrible situation for us.

  2. pit says:

    What you are doing is theft. Doesn't really matter how you look at it. Just because a wireless network was unsecured doesn't it mean you can connect and get access to the internal network? To draw an analogy...if you forgot to lock you house door should I break? Hey...it's not my fault it wasn't locked! By the way depending on your country this could result in a criminal law suit if your neighbour claimed you did this to access his internal network and steal shared files. Damage wouldn't be an issue here. In my country unauthorized access to a computer network can mean between 1-3 years in prison. Really depends how retarded (or it savy) the judge is.

  3. Raymond says:

    Lily,

    I share the same sentiment, except I have a difficult time seeing wireless piggy backing as "theft" when it has been knowingly sent into the public airwaves and readily and even perhaps non intentionally picked up by stray laptops.

    Pit,

    I disagree somewhat. I liken wireless piggy backing to that of music being played in one's own home. If the music leaks out of your home, you cannot go around forcing everyone to cover their ears whenever they walk by your home, lest they deprive you of exclusive enjoyment of the audio music.

    Wireless owners can attempt to offer constructive notice of exclusive usage by password protecting their network. I agree that hacking and attempting to crack the network security measures would constitute theft, but I'm not sure passively accessing a publicly available and completely unsecured wireless signal from your own home would be.

  4. Pete says:

    I can't think of a time that I've actually ever "borrowed" someone else's Wi-Fi network, but I share mine openly. SSID Broadcast is "FeelFree". I encourage others to do so, as well. Why not? I'm not using all that damn bandwidth, someone might as well... I do have firewalls in place on my router, of course to make sure folks can't access my internal network and I have several content filters on it as well, so folks can't access porn, etc... I also have the SMTP ports blocked, not that they can't get around that anyway. But if they just wanna go google something for their kid's homework or something, no problemo. I graduated kindergarten and I don't mind sharing in the least. Hopefully if I'm ever in need, there'll be a kind-hearted stranger around with a WRT1154G to call home.

  5. pit says:

    It's theft because you steal somebody elses bandwidth. Keep in mind that bandwidth might be limited by amount of traffic. Anyway somebody else is paying for your internet and you pay him nothing. As long as you are not shareing the costs too you are stealing.

    Also somebody using your wireless can get you in trouble: downloading of copyrighted material (RIAA lawsuit???), spam, ...

    Just pay for your own connection. Is that too much to ask?

  6. Jake Stichler says:

    If you leave your wireless connection unsecured, it's basically akin to leaving your front door open, so you shouldn't be surprised if someone walks right in and hangs around for a bit. This is why I have absolutely no problem using other people's wireless networks.

    Of course, I'm an uber-geek, too, and think people who don't secure their networks are just plan stupid (or really nice).

    When I moved in to this apartment, across the hall from my sister and her husband, they let me steal their wireless, which is secured because he is also an uber-geek. They wouldn't let me steal their cable, though :-( Even when I offered to pay half for it :-D

  7. Raymond says:

    Jake,

    I personally don't like the "leaving the door open" analogy since I don't think it's as on point. I liken it more to someone playing music and the neighbor listening in for free.

    But yes, everyone should take the appropriate basic steps to secure their wireless connection. It's so easy - a caveman could do it - a caveman who is willing to read the router instruction manual that is.

  8. Tracy says:

    This is one of those instances where being frugal crosses over into ethical problems/cheapness for me. All the excuses in the world about how whoever you're stealing (because it's stealing) bandwidth from didn't secure their connection doesn't make your conscious choice any more right or acceptable. I find that it's really just an excuse.

    It's taking something that you want, that you don't want to pay for and dressing it up in the name of "frugality". I think its the height of cheapness - if you must have wireless internet, pay for it yourself.

    The fact that there's a section here about the potential legal prosecution for doing this indicates to me that yeah, it is pretty much a wrong move, and everyone knows it.

  9. Jake Stichler says:

    Okay, fine, your analogy is better... :-P

  10. nygrump says:

    I look at it as why does the neigbor get to flood my living space with their electromagnetic pollution. There's absolutely no evidence it is safe to be constantly bathed in this flood of radiation. It is an incredible global experimenton our bodies that we were never given a choice to participate in. If you throw money in my window without your name on it, its mine. Why do they get a free ride in toxifying my living space?

    that said I'd have no problem paying a fair price for net access but I don't want to also pay for cable or phone because I don't want to bring that into my life. Did it before won't again.

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