Why it’s not OK to “steal” Wi-Fi

June 20, 2008 at 10:02 pm Leave a comment

Today I ran across a Computer World blog post stating the author’s opinion that it is OK to “steal” Wi-Fi. Instead of joining the throngs of other people posting their replies there, I thought I would post my opinion on this topic here since I happen to have a strong opinion on it, and my response is pretty detailed.

First, his reasons:

His first reason is that simply by using it, you are asking for and receiving permission. He reasons that because your computer requests an IP address and is given one by the access point that you are essentially being given permission to use the network.  The problem with this logic is that common wireless appliances default to operate in this way for ease of setup by the purchaser.  The access point doesn’t know who is connecting, only that someone is, so, assuming it is a device owned by its owner, it helps out by giving them the information they’ll need to get anywhere on the network.  Some will argue that if the end-user doesn’t follow directions, yada-yada…  It isn’t wise to leave your front door unlocked, but that doesn’t give anyone else the right to walk right in.  His logic here is like saying you “ask” permission by turning the door knob, and the door “grants” permission by opening.  (This analogy was borrowed from a commenter on his article.)

His second reason is that you can’t be on their network unless their network reaches your computer. His logic here is really reaching, babbling on about your neighbor’s wireless signals “breaking into your home”.  Give it a rest, guy…  It’s stealing!

By this guy’s logic, it should be perfectly fine to run an Ethernet cable through your neighbor’s window without telling him and attach it to an open port on their router.  In that case, your neighbor’s router will give you an IP Address, so that’s your permission, right?  I don’t think anyone with a brain would argue that this is legal, but connecting to their network wirelessly without permission (from a human) is the same thing.

The Computer World blogger references another article where the writer confesses that he didn’t pay for Internet access for three years, instead stealing it from his neighbors on a daily basis.  If you are doing this, don’t even try to kid youself – You are stealing!

What almost everyone ignores (as have I up until now):

In most posts on this topic, the poster ignores one rather crucial aspect.  Most people with a wireless network have Internet access, but you can have a wireless network without having Internet access.  Connecting to someone’s home wireless network that didn’t have Internet access would be pretty pointless to most people interesting in “stealing” Wi-Fi.

That’s because it’s not the wireless connection that they are stealing, but rather Internet access. Most people have Internet access at home.  Where does that come from?  An Internet Service Provider (ISP).  ISP’s don’t generally provide this service for free, so someone is paying for that access.  Basically all residential ISP’s have usage agreements, and almost all of them have a clause stating that you can’t share your Internet connection.  You might say “Hey – It’s on them, because they aren’t securing their wireless network!”, but you’d be wrong.  To share something, you have to know that you are sharing it.  If you aren’t aware of it, you are the victim of theft.  Let’s demonstrate this principle:  Let’s say my neighbor is Bill Gates and he keeps all of his money in a garage just next to my home.  I’ve read that Bill is a really nice guy, and think that he might not mind sharing a little of his money with me.  Unfortunately, I can never get in touch with him to ask because he’s so busy.  So, one day I go into his garage and take some of the money.  There’s so much money in there, he’d never notice the little bit I took.  In this example, did Bill share his money?  No, it was stolen.  The fact that he has a virtually unlimited amount and will never notice the missing money doesn’t make it any less stolen.

In the past (and perhaps still) some ISPs would throttle a customers Internet connection when they have a sustained high utilization.  So, if you are stealing your neighbor’s Wi-Fi, when you download the latest hit comedy movie for 20 minutes or so, their speed may drop from 1.5 Mbps to 256 Kbps, for example.  This directly affects that customer in that it reduces the quality of their Internet connection.  In fact, even if their ISP doesn’t throttle and you are using Bittorrent software, chances are good that you will seriously degrade your neighbors connection to the Internet.  (Bittorrent is extremely efficient at using all available bandwidth!)

Recently, there has been a lot of info in the press about Comcast, AT&T, and others considering implementing metered bandwidth.  This is where the ISP decides that 250 GB of data transfer should be good enough for everyone, and then bills customers who exceed that limit $15 for every 10 GB they go over.  In this case, if you use their Internet connection it can directly cost them cash.  Still think it isn’t stealing?

You can’t just say that someone with an unsecured wireless router is willingly sharing their Internet connection, unless you’ve specifically asked that person, they have some sort of sign posted, the SSID is FREEINET, or something along those lines.  An open access point isn’t permission for you to connect, but simply configured that way so that the non-techie owner can easily connect his wireless devices.  I think people who say “you shouldn’t buy a wireless router unless you are going to be responsible enough to secure it” are elitists just trying to justify their own selfish behavior.

The bottom line is this: If you are receiving Internet access without permission of the person paying for that access, it is stealing, pure and simple.

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Entry filed under: General, Networking.

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