Is it theft to use an unsecured Wi-Fi connection? Editor Mitch Wagner weighs in.

Mitch Wagner, California Bureau Chief, Light Reading

July 29, 2004

7 Min Read

Yes, I used my neighbor's Wi-Fi.

A few weeks ago, I asked for your help with a moral dilemma. I was visiting my father in New York. I knew from past experience that hooking my laptop up to his cablemodem was a royal pain. I planned to do it later, but I wanted to check e-mail right now. I opened the laptop to look for unsecured Wi-Fi connections and, sure enough, I found one, called "linksys," with no password protection. I could use it pretty easily - but should I?

I asked for your opinion, and 35 of you responded. You made your arguments in strong terms. Opinion was more-or-less evenly split: 17 respondents said that Wi-Fi sharing would be okay, 14 said it would be wrong. Four respondents simply provided information or came down on both sides of the issue.

That was helpful, but it didn't provide me with an answer. Surely the law could be a help.

Nope. The law has simply not caught up with this question; it neither expressly prohibits nor expressly permits sharing Wi-Fi signals. Cyberlawyer Mark Rasch walks through the ins and outs.

His advice: be safe. Don't do it. One surprise: according to Rasch, my father's neighbor - or anyone running unsecured Wi-Fi - face a far greater legal risk than I did, or anyone else using it.

So why did I feel justified using my father's neighbors unsecured Wi-Fi?

- I didn't deprive him, or anyone else, of anything. Reader Bruce Ellison, who describes himself as a "law enforcement officer of 30 years" says I am "permanently depriving the neighbor something of value, the cost for the broadband access." But I'm not - he still has the full enjoyment of his broadband connection, unimpeded by me.

- There is no physical trespass. I'm not even touching anybody else's physical property; I'm sitting in a place where I'm authorized to be (my Dad's apartment), using the laptop my company issued to me. (An excellent IBM ThinkPad T41, by the way). Reader Charles P. Pfleeger writes: "An easy parallel is cutting a neighbor's flowers or taking something from a house thoughtlessly left unlocked" and goes on to compare my action to "entering the house without taking anything," or "open[ing] and read[ing] a neighbor's newspaper sitting on the front stoop." Reader Dave Nelson asks, "If he left his car unlocked with the keys in the ignition is it ok to take it for a joy-ride?" But these things are NOT comparable, simply because the Wi-Fi signal is not physical property. The same rules sometimes apply to intangible property and physical property, but not always, and it's tricky and hazardous to draw analogies between ownership of physical property and ownership of information.

Indeed, reader Ray argues the analogy from the other direction: "Its like leaving your trash can at the curb, anyone can go through your stuff at that point."

As Rasch notes in his analysis; this decision is difficult because there is neither law nor established custom to guide us. If a neighbor left his or her door wide open and unlocked, there are literally thousands of years of law and custom to guide us whether we should go into the apartment; but Wi-Fi has been in commonplace use for two years. We simply don't know what to do. "Don't confuse the issue by observing the neighbor's having failed to implement minimal security," Pfleeger writes; but it's not confusing the issue at all. If the neighbor had secured his connection - even using the minimal, easy-to-break security of WEP - he'd at least have been telling me "no trespassing." The neighbor has provided me with no information at all to tell me what his intentions are.

- Several readers said I should find my neighbor and let him know how to secure the connection. Good idea, but I didn't, mainly because I was intimidated by the prospect of trying to find the source of the signal. The signal was very weak; I figured it could have come from any of the 50 apartments in my father's building, or the 100 apartments in the neighboring building. If the signal had been strong, I probably would have assumed it came from one of the half-dozen direct neighbors and might have knocked on a few doors.

- All I was planning to do was check e-mail, do some light web surfing and instant messaging. I wasn't going to hog bandwidth, and I wasn't going to do anything illegal, immoral or even objectionable: I wasn't sending spam, downloading porn, trafficking in kiddie porn, hacking into anybody's system, sending phishing messages, sending viruses, plotting a terrorist attack, or even using excessive smileys in instant messages.

- I only did it a couple of times. If I actually LIVED in that apartment, it would have been wrong to permanently borrow my neighbor's Wi-Fi, I would have been required to get my own. I'll make that assertion based on neither law nor philosophy, but rather on simple neighborliness; it just ain't friendly.

So, yes, I did use the neighbor's unsecured Wi-Fi - but not for long. I checked e-mail using the Wi-Fi signal once a day or so for three days. But the signal was, as I said, very weak; the slow, intermittent connection made Instant Messaging and web surfing impossible, and it created problems for Microsoft Outlook. So, after a few days of struggling, I set aside a block of time for the tedious task of getting my Dad's cable modem working with my laptop, and used that connection for the rest of my three-week stay.

In the end, I didn't rely on rational analysis at all in making my decision whether to use my neighbor's Wi-Fi. I trusted my gut instinct. I was harming no one. My conscience is pretty well-trained, and it set off no alarms. And (I have to admit) I was motivated as much by curiosity to see if it would work as I was by desire to get on the Internet.

P.S. Why was hooking up to my Dad's cable modem such a pain? Because he uses AOL Broadband, that's why. To connect a laptop computer to AOL Broadband, I needed to: (1) Install AOL on the laptop (2) Dig out my AOL account ID and password (3) Connect to AOL over dial-up to make sure it worked (4) Power down my Dad's computer. (5) Power down the cable modem. (6) Power down the laptop, (7) Connect the laptop to the cable modem, then (8) IN THIS ORDER: power up the cable modem, wait for it to be fully booted up, then power up my notebook computer and start AOL. Took me some trial and error to remember that sequence, too.

I could only use one computer at a time on the connection; if someone wanted to use my Dad's computer, I had to power down mine and go through the whole process again with his computer to get it connected to the network and recognized.

Much bad language blistered the walls of my paternal domicile as I went through all this.

Thanks to my colleague David Strom for helping me through the process. I'm posting this here in the hopes that some person in a similar predicament to mine will find the information using Google; I couldn't find any online help for my predicament.

How did I get AOL installed on my laptop? I hunted around my Dad's apartment until I found an AOL CD. Fortunately, there was one. You can count on an AOL CD being anywhere in the world; in the hills of Pakistan, guerrilla fighters use AOL CDs for target practice.

About the Author(s)

Mitch Wagner

California Bureau Chief, Light Reading

Mitch Wagner is California bureau chief for Light Reading.

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