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WiFi "Piggybacking": Is it a Question of Ethics?

Thu, 05/08/2008 - 12:40pm
Nancy Maas
Editor-in-Chief
I'm sure we've all been tempted at some point to hop on another person's WiFi connection when we are in desperate mode to access that "life changing" email. The situation usually starts out very innocently. You've got a project to do, you set aside the time, fire up your laptop, hit the Internet Explorer icon and you get one of those dreaded error messages. It happened to me recently. I sat down to write this column (on a different topic) and needed to do a little research first. After several attempts to reboot, and the normal routine one goes through to reconnect, I realized it was going to require a call to my ISP and about 20 minutes on hold before I would be able to get this situation resolved. And then it occurred to me. Why not hop on my neighbor's wireless connection and avoid the inconvenience of contacting my carrier. He wouldn't mind would he? It's not like I am doing something illegal or causing him to overuse his bandwidth allotment. I just wanted to spend a few minutes surfing the Internet using his signal without his permission or his acknowledgement.

Ultimately, I did not access his bandwidth for my purposes; however, I definitely was tempted. Apparently, I am not alone. IT security and control firm Sophos revealed new research on what it terms WiFi "piggybacking" or logging on to someone's open 802.11b/g/n network without their knowledge or permission. According to the company's study, 54 percent admitted to using a WiFi connection of another person without their permission and breaking the law. Breaking the law, what law?

Surprisingly, accessing an unsecured, wide-open WiFi network without permission is illegal in some places, for example the UK. In the US, an Illinois man was arrested and fined $250 in 2006 for using an open network without permission, while a Michigan man who parked his car in front of a café and accessed its free WiFi was charged this past May with "Fraudulent access to computers, computer systems, and computer networks." And in the state of Maryland, which is where I live, a bill was introduced into the Maryland General Assembly that if passed, would criminalize the unauthorized use of a wireless access point in the state; thus far it has not passed.

So let's revisit the question I posed earlier. Does using a WiFi connection other than your own without permission constitute stealing? Usually when a theft has been committed, there is a victim. Who's the victim here?

This issue will eventually need to be confronted since more and more consumer electronics devices are WiFi-enabled, and many of them come ready out of the box to automatically connect to WiFi networks. Should we have laws governing the use of open WiFi, or should we just assume that if individuals leave their wireless access port open and not password protected, that they are willing to share the bandwidth? One thing is for sure — WiFi open access is not going away anytime soon.

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