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.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: