Is Using Somebody Else’s Wi-Fi Connection a Crime?

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Admit it… Many of you have done it. It’s easy. There’s little chance of getting caught, and who doesn’t like getting something for nothing?

I’m talking about freeloading or piggybacking on your neighbor’s Wi-Fi connection.

The fact is that if you do some wardriving you’ll see that many, if not most wireless networks are unsecured. That means they’re not encrypted, and anyone with a laptop computer, Wi-Fi enabled cellphone or other Wi-Fi device can associate their device with someone else’s network. Some network owners don’t mind others piggybacking on their Internet connection, but many others do. It’s probably a case of not being savvy enough to secure their Wi-Fi access point, since wireless routers’ factory default usually provides an open (unencrypted) connection.

Unless the network is intentionally being made available for public use, (and many are) is it illegal to use someone else’s service? It probably depends where you live. In the United States, there have been some prosecutions of Wi-Fi piggybackers, but laws relating to this practice, if they exist at all, vary from locality to locality.

It is possible to positively identify unauthorized users of a wireless network. All it requires is a Wi-Fi enabled laptop and some off-the-shelf software to capture and analyze the packets being transported across the network.

Personally, I have mixed feelings about this. On one hand, the IT guy in me says that you should always secure a wireless network, not only to prevent theft of your Internet service, but to protect the computers on your network. On the other hand, the idea of neighbors cooperating with neighbors and providing community access to the Internet is very appealing to me also.

Some US cities have deployed open, public-access Wi-Fi networks, and many others are in the planning stages. I think these projects are great. New technologies, including Wi-Max, promise to accelerate the deployment of wide-area wireless networks. With more Wi-Fi enabled devices becoming available, including cellphones, having ubiquitous wireless coverage will be more and more important to the public.

Boston has it’s Main Streets Wi-Fi Initiative. NYCwireless is deploying public Wi-Fi in various areas in New York City. Wireless Philadelphia is connecting Pennsylvania’s largest city. Many municipal Wi-Fi initiatives have run into trouble, though. These include projects in San Francisco, California, and Houston, Texas.

Do you have a success story about a municipal Wi-Fi project? Post your comments here.

1 Comment

Filed under Cellphones, Consumerism, Free Stuff, Home, Life, Money, News, Routing by Rumor, Technology, Telephony, Your Money

One response to “Is Using Somebody Else’s Wi-Fi Connection a Crime?

  1. Would this be difficult to prosecute since most devices will connect automatically to “the next available” unsecured network? Also, a lot of people don’t change the network name for “linksys” for example. Of course, I’m not an expert but it seems like there could be problems.

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