In Defense of “Piggybacking”

by on March 5, 2006 · 12 comments

The quality of mainstream media coverage of wireless “piggybacking” leaves a lot to be desired:

Martha Liliana Ramirez, who lives in Miami, said she had not thought much about securing her $100-a-month Internet connection until recently. Last August, Ms. Ramirez, 31, a real estate agent, discovered a man camped outside her condominium with a laptop pointed at her building.

When Ms. Ramirez asked the man what he was doing, he said he was stealing a wireless Internet connection because he did not have one at home. She was amused but later had an unsettling thought: “Oh my God. He could be stealing my signal.”

Yet some six months later, Ms. Ramirez still has not secured her network.

If you take out the alarmist rhetoric, here’s what happened: Ms. Ramirez purchased a wireless router and made access to her network available to the general public. The gentleman in the car used the connection she made available. What’s the problem?

There are some nuances to the story, obviously. Apparently, Ms. Ramirez would rather that strangers not access her network, although it doesn’t explain why. And it’s possible that securing her network is beyond her technical capability, in which case she is, in a sense, having her network used against her will. But that’s not a terribly good excuse. Setting a wireless network password isn’t that hard. If she doesn’t know how to do it, there is surely at least one computer geek in her life who could show her. And if, after 6 months, she hadn’t gone to the trouble of figuring it out, she can’t possibly be that concerned.


What the article doesn’t seem to consider is that there might not be a problem here at all. Aside from the use of perjorative terms to describe the process, the article never makes any effort to explain why any of this is a bad thing. It seems never to contemplate that some people might make their network connections available to the world on purpose, as a neighborly gesture. And it also seems not to have occurred to the author that it’s tremendously useful that travelers can check their email virtually anywhere in the country simply by parking outside of an apartment building.

It goes without saying that it would be better if everyone had the technical savvy to make this an informed choice rather than a clueless default. Clearly, we need to educate people so that they’re aware that most wireless routers, by default, are open to the world. And wireless equipment makers should work to make the process of setting a network password as easy and self-explanatory as possible. But as users become more educated and networking equipment becomes more self-explanatory, it will become clear that this is simply an issue of personal choice: if you wish to share your network access with your neighbors, you’re welcome to do so. If you choose to hoarde it, that too is your choice. But it’s not a decision that requires public debate, any more than we need a public debate about whether people should let their neighbors use their backyard swimming pools.

On the other side of the coin, I persist in the belief that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with connecting to an unprotected network. True, it’s rude to saturate someone else’s pipe with massive downloads. But for casual Internet use–web browsing, email, or instant messaging–the bandwidth used is trivial. While it might seem weird or creepy to people not very familiar with the practice, once they become more familiar with it, I think people will realize how harmless it is.

  • Ned Ulbricht

    In a certain sense, this reminds me of the old arguments for and against closing promiscuously open email relays. The chief difference I see is that open wireless access points don’t have a multiplier effect like (E)SMTP relay does. Without an amplifying factor, there doesn’t seem to be a similar detrimental impact on global system stability.

    Further, in a world of global ip connectivity there really isn’t much of a case favoring (non-abusive) third-party email relay. Contrariwise, increased ip connectivity sounds like a general good.

  • Ned Ulbricht

    In a certain sense, this reminds me of the old arguments for and against closing promiscuously open email relays. The chief difference I see is that open wireless access points don’t have a multiplier effect like (E)SMTP relay does. Without an amplifying factor, there doesn’t seem to be a similar detrimental impact on global system stability.

    Further, in a world of global ip connectivity there really isn’t much of a case favoring (non-abusive) third-party email relay. Contrariwise, increased ip connectivity sounds like a general good.

  • http://www.techliberation.com/ Tim

    Right, with SMTP, the problem is that the whole world is your neighbor, so even if only one in a million people is up to something bad, that still leaves several hundred people who could do bad things with your open relay.

    In contrast, I only have half a dozen neighbors, so the odds that one of them will do something really bad with my Internet connection is very small.

  • http://www.techliberation.com/ Tim

    Right, with SMTP, the problem is that the whole world is your neighbor, so even if only one in a million people is up to something bad, that still leaves several hundred people who could do bad things with your open relay.

    In contrast, I only have half a dozen neighbors, so the odds that one of them will do something really bad with my Internet connection is very small.

  • Ned Ulbricht

    Hmmm…

    That isn’t quite the “amplification” argument I was making. With SMTP relay, a single incoming transaction with multiple RCPT TO addresses (3.3; p.15) can result in multiple outgoing sessions.

  • Ned Ulbricht

    Hmmm…

    That isn’t quite the “amplification” argument I was making. With SMTP relay, a single incoming transaction with multiple RCPT TO addresses (3.3; p.15) can result in multiple outgoing sessions.

  • http://www.techliberation.com/ Tim

    Oh, that’s another important difference.

  • http://www.techliberation.com/ Tim

    Oh, that’s another important difference.

  • http://www.knowmad.net Peter

    Okay, let me get this straight:

    It’s okay to FORCE people to pay for wireless all over with a taxpayer funded wi-fi, but….

    …it’s NOT OKAY for people to SHARE their wi-fi on personal expense?

  • http://www.knowmad.net Peter

    Okay, let me get this straight:

    It’s okay to FORCE people to pay for wireless all over with a taxpayer funded wi-fi, but….

    …it’s NOT OKAY for people to SHARE their wi-fi on personal expense?

  • Shawn

    You guys are letting the small details obscure the big picture….. Big dollar computing companies never want you to have anything for FREE, henceforth the media bias of piggybackers portrayed as thieves.

    If computer users start getting stuff for free, then people that drive BMW’s and Escalades might have to drive more sensible vehicles like the rest of us.

  • Shawn

    You guys are letting the small details obscure the big picture….. Big dollar computing companies never want you to have anything for FREE, henceforth the media bias of piggybackers portrayed as thieves.

    If computer users start getting stuff for free, then people that drive BMW’s and Escalades might have to drive more sensible vehicles like the rest of us.

Previous post:

Next post: