“Stealing” Wi-Fi

by on November 23, 2004

A recent Slate article goes over the ins and outs of “stealing” your neighbors’ Internet connection via wi-fi:

Every techie I know says that you shouldn’t use other people’s networks without permission. Every techie I know does it anyway. If you’re going to steal–no, let’s say borrow–your neighbor’s Wi-Fi access, you might as well do it right. Step one: Lose the guilt. The FCC told me that they don’t know of any federal or state laws that make it illegal to log on to an open network. Using someone’s connection to check your e-mail isn’t like hacking into their bank account. It’s more like you’re borrowing a cup of sugar.

This techie doesn’t say that you shouldn’t use other people’s networks without permission. In fact, I deliberately leave my wi-fi network unprotected, in case my neighbors have problems with their service and need a backup. They also have wi-fi, and do the same. I have no idea if they’re doing it on purpose or don’t know any better, but in either event my mooching doesn’t seem to have bothered them.

Technically speaking, you probably are violating your ISP’s terms of service by “sharing” your connection. But those provisions are vague enough, (and, if interpreted literally, silly enough) that I don’t have any real qualms about ignoring them. It doesn’t cost them appreciably more to occasionally carry traffic from my neighbors, and the benefit of having a backup Internet connection in a pinch is substantial.

My geeky ex-co-workers would kill me for saying this, but I really don’t think it’s a big deal from a security standpoint. Yes, if you happen to have a determined hacker next door to you, opening your wireless network makes his job easier. But the fact is that there are only a few thousand determined hackers in the country. My chances of landing one of them as a neighbor is remote. And besides, being my neighbor would make them pretty easy to catch if they did something illegal with my connection.

Assuming you don’t have a determined hacker next door, locking your computer down isn’t that difficult. Turn off services you don’t need, like file sharing. If you must use a local network service, make sure you pick a decent password for it. And never send personal information like credit cards via email or over other non-encrypted channels. Really, you should be taking all those steps whether you’re leaving your wi-fi network or not– the unencrypted Internet is inherently secure, and you should assume any open service could be hacked and any data sent in the clear could be snooped.

So I say: share and share alike. Let your neighbors use your wi-fi service, and go ahead and use theirs. Information, after all, wants to be free.

HT: J. Lo.

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