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Confessions of a Wi-Fi Thief 849

Michelle Shildkret from Time wrote in to tell us about a story about "the ethics of stealing Wi-Fi. Many of us been guilty of the same crime at one point or another — according to the article, 53% of us at least. But how guilty do we really feel? As it is officially a crime to steal wi-fi (Title 18, Part 1, Chapter 47 of the United States Code, which covers anybody who 'intentionally accesses a computer without authorization or exceeds authorized access')."
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Confessions of a Wi-Fi Thief

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  • Officially a crime? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by skirmish666 ( 1287122 ) on Thursday June 19, 2008 @10:33AM (#23856323)
    Could you clarify, a wifi hotspot is classified as a computer? It's intentionally accessing a network for sure, but don't know about a computer.
  • Authorization (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Hatta ( 162192 ) on Thursday June 19, 2008 @10:38AM (#23856433) Journal

    Title 18, Part 1, Chapter 47 of the United States Code, which covers anybody who "intentionally accesses a computer without authorization or exceeds authorized access"

    Open routers have a policy of allowing authorization by default. As such, using an open router is not illegal under this act. If you have to crack anything, then it is illegal. But a simple open router is no different than an open anonymous FTP site, web server, irc server, etc.
  • This story is stupid (Score:3, Interesting)

    by pilbender ( 925017 ) on Thursday June 19, 2008 @10:41AM (#23856503) Homepage Journal
    WiFi hotspots are all over. I've connected to dozens of them. That's what they are for.

    So the only way a person *knows* it's not intended to be a public network is by having someone complain about it after the fact. Lots of people leave their WiFi open at home as a "public service".

    It's different to intentionally circumvent protections that are in place, like WEP or restriction by MAC address. That's prying open a locked door so to speak.

    Sometimes I think these article summaries are intentionally worded to get slashdotters cranked up. Okay, it worked on me.
  • Not at all? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by pla ( 258480 ) on Thursday June 19, 2008 @10:41AM (#23856531) Journal
    But how guilty do we really feel?

    Although I think the answer to that depends on how much (and how) we use it, I'd say that most people don't feel at all guilty about using any convenient access point for short, low-bandwidth activities.

    If I need directions while out and about, I'll find an open AP and pull up Google Maps. No guilt whatsoever, and I wouldn't mind if someone used my AP for the same; In fact, I'd consider this one of the greatest side-effects of ubiquitous open WAPs, the ability to share a small trickle of a resource I never need all to myself (and to use it when I similarly need that small trickle of data).

    Now, regularly using a neighbor's wireless to avoid needing to pay for your own ISP (unless you have an agreement to split the cost - Of course, the ISPs hate this, but I see no ethical problem with it) or downloading kiddie porn or sucking a large portion of the available bandwidth... That gets into abusive territory, and such people should feel guilty.
  • Blame Windows (Score:5, Interesting)

    by sunderland56 ( 621843 ) on Thursday June 19, 2008 @10:42AM (#23856561)
    Windows is, by default, configured to automatically connect to new networks. Which means, it is configured to silently break the law, without your knowledge. The 53% of people who admit to stealing WiFi is probably really higher - many people don't know where thier bits are coming from.

    The power went off in my house the other day - and nobody noticed. The four or five laptops in use all silently switched over to a neighbour's network. I can't see that being considered a crime.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday June 19, 2008 @10:42AM (#23856565)
    At home I've got a completely open wifi access point for all my neighbors to use. Since none of them are all that tech savvy I don't need to worry about them hogging bandwidth through bittorrent and the like. I figure that as long as my own access to Internet is unobstructed, why shouldn't I let others partake in it for free?
  • by VMaN ( 164134 ) on Thursday June 19, 2008 @10:43AM (#23856579) Homepage

    If this was wikipedia, "stealing" in this context would be a weasel word...

    If a router is handing out IPs, how is that stealing?

    Unless we are talking wpa/wep encryption cracking, or possibly abusing the connection, I don't see what the problem is.
  • Crime (Score:3, Interesting)

    by JustKidding ( 591117 ) on Thursday June 19, 2008 @10:43AM (#23856585)

    As it is officially a crime to steal wi-fi
    in the US, maybe.

    Some people actually do live outside the US. This may come as a surprise to you, be we even have electricity and computers.

    Also, in many places, the law is quite a bit more reasonable. Where I live, it is only illegal to access a system when a reasonable effort has been made to protect it (so an open access point doesn't count), and even then, they have to prove you intentionally did that.
  • Not at all, but... (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Dripdry ( 1062282 ) on Thursday June 19, 2008 @10:45AM (#23856627) Journal
    my girlfriend's router conks out EVERY Monday, sometime between midnight and 7am. I keep meaning to put a faraday cage aorund it, and we've tried a number of different fixes. Now the whole thing is down.

    My point? If the technology isn't there to reliably and consistently allow internet access which is *being paid for* then I see no reason why we shouldn't piggyback off someone else until the problem is solved. Redundancy and all (isn't that how the Intertubules are designed anyway)

    On the other hand, if we all did that and piggybacked, obviously it would be a problem.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday June 19, 2008 @10:48AM (#23856721)
    I leave my access point open on purpose. Anyone can connect, and I even named my router "Open Access Point". If someone connects, I don't think they're stealing from me.

    At some point, I think society would be better served by everyone leaving all of their access points open. I love the idea of mesh networks and eliminating the need for everyone to have a wired connection to the internet.

  • by TheLink ( 130905 ) on Thursday June 19, 2008 @10:49AM (#23856731) Journal
    It's not well thought out. Otherwise you wouldn't have this issue in the first place.

    If I want to share my WiFi it isn't easy to make it known of my wishes and my terms and conditions - after all, though I share it, I might say I log access, (mac addresses, urls etc) just in case someone does something illegal, so that if the cops come, I could throw them that bone to chew on, instead of them chewing on me.

    If it were well thought out, it would be easy to have secure encrypted _anonymous_ connections:
    1) no need for people to enter a password to get encryption
    2) people cannot see each other's traffic - snooping is possible in some encryption modes, for example if everyone knows the WEP key, they can figure out each other's traffic, so you'd need some WPA mode, but these require username and passwords, you could give everyone the same username and password, but there's no standard for Windows, Linux, Mac to try "anonymous" usernames and passwords ala anonymous ftp.

    And also there would be a standard way to get info about a wifi zone, and to prompt the user if the info/T&C changes, say when you computer connects to a different AP.

    So the tech still needs a fair bit of work.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday June 19, 2008 @10:52AM (#23856815)
    What's the cost of leeching of someones wifi? If you're not downloading a season of The Office with bit-torrent, or watching high-definition streaming video with your neighbors unsecured wifi then I cant imagine that you'd have any great impact on them. I have a cable modem connected to a wireless router at my apartment -- and I leave it unsecured intentionally for the sole purpose of helping someone out who needs to get online. For everyday browsing, emailing, and use of aptitude (I really don't do much more than that I guess) I'm fine with two or three guests in my routers DHCP table. I think the lesson we should take from wifi leaching is that for general purpose internet use, what most of us do, everyone having their own cable modem and paying a media-mega giant 60 bucks a month isn't necessary. If we got less up-tight about trusting our neighbors, it's another area where things could be cheaper.
  • by Just Some Guy ( 3352 ) <> on Thursday June 19, 2008 @10:53AM (#23856855) Homepage Journal

    To draw an analogy, it isn't just leaving your front door unlocked, it's leaving it unlocked and putting up a sign that says "Please come in!".

    Double that for access points in commercial places. You can argue (and I would disagree) that residential WLANs are meant to be private, but I would say that a business's hotspot is exactly as open as their front door. If it's unlocked and there's a sign saying "OPEN", then it's meant for me to use.

  • Re:Argh... (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday June 19, 2008 @10:54AM (#23856859)
    Where I live (France), going through an opened door
    (front door of a flat) without being invited in is legally trespassing. So if someone forget to close their door, we are still not supposed to enter.
  • I don't get it (Score:5, Interesting)

    by leoboiko ( 462141 ) <leoboiko AT gmail DOT com> on Thursday June 19, 2008 @10:55AM (#23856893) Homepage

    I don't see what's the drama with open access. I leave my AP open on purpose, with an essid starting with "free_" to reinforce the idea, and a simple QOS setup to give me priority over my neighbors. I can't even notice when they're using the net, and I counted more than 10 different MAC addresses so far. More people using the net == good. It's not like I need all my bandwidth 24/7...

    in b4 "but pedophiles will get you jailed, think of the children!!" -- I'm no more responsible for that than the hot dog vendor in the corner would be if ninja terrorists employed his hot dogs as lethal weapons.

  • oh boy (Score:3, Interesting)

    by gTsiros ( 205624 ) on Thursday June 19, 2008 @10:59AM (#23856975)
    They rob me of quiet and peace. i never make noise. They gun their 50cc twostroke scooters at 2am. i spent 100 bux (70 euros give or take) to fix my car's muffler so it is SILENT where they PAY to make them louder. they toss their garbage wherever they like. i try to recycle. the rest of the apartment block is drenched in tobaccosmoke stench. when/if i smoke i make sure to neutralize the smoke.

    i don't feel guilty at all and don't you dare start with the "two wrongs don't make a right" crap. /torrenting as we speak
  • Re:Blame Windows (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Totenglocke ( 1291680 ) on Thursday June 19, 2008 @11:02AM (#23857049)
    Well the relevant thing in the case of the speeding ticket is, was the change in the speed limit clearly marked? I know many places around where I live where you can be on a road with a speed limit of say 45 or 50, turn onto another road, and not see a speed limit sign for several miles. If I was on one of those roads and got a ticket because I had to guess at the speed limit due to a lack of signs, you'd better believe I'd be suing.
  • Re:Not a thief (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Jeppe Salvesen ( 101622 ) on Thursday June 19, 2008 @11:06AM (#23857167)
    I believe it is a lesser crime to enter without breaking in.

    Now, if you use an open network, you only use bandwidth temporarily. If you leave the network, the bandwidth will still be there. So it's more like entering an unlocked house to take a sip from the faucet. The only crime committed is that you didn't pay for bottled water.
  • by szquirrel ( 140575 ) on Thursday June 19, 2008 @11:06AM (#23857173) Homepage
    For fuck's sake, do we have to go over this again? Stealing means that the perpetrator takes something away and the victim doesn't have it anymore. It doesn't apply to accessing someone's wifi, it doesn't apply to unscrambling a pay-TV channel, it doesn't apply to copying a digital file.

    If you're going to cast "unauthorized use" in terms of robbery, then don't cry about how your rights are being taken away when you get prosecuted as a robber for making use of something that someone else couldn't be bothered to secure properly.
  • the US Gov does it (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday June 19, 2008 @11:36AM (#23857891)
    I used to work for one of the agencies of the US Dept. of Commerce. In visiting some of my coworkers in a certain building in the Washington DC area, I found that they were using wifi from the Ford dealership next door. I used it myself when I went to this building for meetings, and it seemed that the people working there used it as a matter of course. They even joked about thanking the dealership for the free internet access (though I'm sure they never did). I think there was no wifi in this building because of security concerns.
  • Re:Not a thief (Score:4, Interesting)

    by wild_quinine ( 998562 ) on Thursday June 19, 2008 @11:46AM (#23858161) Homepage
    This kind of misses the point, actually. The purpose of a door, other than to keep heat in, is to DENY access. If you don't need to deny access, you don't need a door. Having a door at all is analagous to enabling WPA or WEP.

    By contrast, the purpose of a router is to ALLOW access. Only the encryption routines and MAC filtering are there to filter that access.

  • Re:Not a thief (Score:5, Interesting)

    by evilandi ( 2800 ) <> on Thursday June 19, 2008 @12:12PM (#23858807) Homepage
    I believe it is a lesser crime to enter without breaking in.

    Correct. Burglary is the act of breaking AND entering AND committing theft (logical AND; all three must happen). Theft is the intention to permanently deprive someone of physical property. Since accessing open WiFi does not involve depriving someone of physical property (neither permanent nor temporary), it is neither theft nor burglary.

    Fraud covers many crimes such as obtaining goods or services through deception. Since there was no deception, there was no fraud.

    A door does not reply with a message granting me access; the fact that it is open, closed, locked, unlocked, slightly ajar or otherwise is legally irrelevant - the important thing with burglary is that you had to break something to gain entry and then take something without permission, with no intention of giving it back.

    An open WiFi router does specifically reply with a message granting me permission. The fact that it uses a particular protocol or particular encryption is legally irrelevent - the important thing is that it replied back with a message specifically granting me permission. Users are authorised.

    (Declaration of interest: I run a deliberately open WiFi hotspot [] - albeit heavily firewalled and bandwidth-throttled. )
  • by Xocet_00 ( 635069 ) on Thursday June 19, 2008 @12:21PM (#23859037)
    "Last year a man in Cedar Springs, Mich., was fined $400 for mooching off somebody else's wi-fi--a police officer spotted him laptop-surfing in a parked car."

    My laptop has an internal EVDO Rev A card that has become my primary mode of connecting to the net outside of my home. I've only had it for a month or so. I use this laptop in cars or other public spaces all the time. It seems unlikely that I'd be able to convince a police officer that I do in fact own the connection that I'm using to surf in a parking lot. It's an easy assumption to make that anyone using a laptop out in the open is likely using a nearby 802.11 network.

    So, assuming the cop doesn't believe me, how is the fine given out? If I'm spotted, does the cop write me a ticket? Does he arrest me? Do I have to go to court and prove that I am, in fact, using a connection for which I've paid?

    Hopefully there's more to that story than the article lets on. Hopefully showing the officer the "TELUS" logo on my connection app would be convincing enough. Otherwise, it seems like this sort of thing is very guilty-until-proven-innocent.
  • School Analogy (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Daryen ( 1138567 ) on Thursday June 19, 2008 @12:38PM (#23859403)
    In my opinion, accessing an open router may not be illegal, but it can still get you in trouble depending on who owns it.

    Case 1: A university has a large sign out front broadcasting it's name and anyone can enter the campus. There are places you should know you shouldn't go on campus unless you are a student or teacher, and things you know you shouldn't do.

    This is analogous to having a router with SSID broadcasting that assigns IPs to anyone automatically and gives them unrestricted internet access. You shouldn't access their computers or start printing stuff on their network printer. It's still assumed that you should use the router for legal purposes and it's polite not to kill it with bittorrent.

    Case 2: A public school in a rural neighborhood has a sign out front, but you need to go to the front desk and get a nametag if you aren't a student. You need to state your purpose and leave when you're done. It would be trivially easy to go in a side door, but that would get you in trouble.

    This is analogous to a cafe with a sign that says "Free wifi for customers." Sure you COULD access it out in the parking lot, but the legality of it is much more in the gray area, and it's possible they could attempt to bring charges.

    Case 3: A private school in an urban area has no sign, and a large gate out front. You aren't allowed anywhere on campus without permission.

    This is analogous to a wifi network with no SSID broadcasting and wep encryption enabled. It is clear that this network was not meant for your use.

  • Re:Not a thief (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Fast Thick Pants ( 1081517 ) <(fastthickpants) (at) (> on Thursday June 19, 2008 @01:27PM (#23860473)

    Suppose you bought a used car lot, but not to sell the cars, just to have a nice inventory onhand for your friends and family who live nearby. You want to make it easy and convenient, so you get all the cars rekeyed so the same key will operate them all. You want to announce this service and distribute the keys, but it's too much trouble to look up each person's mailing address. So you get 1000 copies of the key made and bulk-mail them to everyone in the zip code, addressed to "Occupant", with an invitation that says "Feel free to borrow one of my cars!"

    Naturally, you assume that only the friends and family you intended will use the cars. Imagine your surprise when you see strangers borrowing the cars!

    Is this bad? Well, it's not doing anyone any harm... as long as you have enough cars left over for your friends and family too... as long as the strangers don't run over pedestrians with your cars and get the cops on your ass... as long as the local car rental company doesn't find out and come break your kees for stealing their business... Hmm, all in all, maybe it'd be safer to give the keys out only to selected individuals!

  • Re:Not a thief (Score:4, Interesting)

    by somersault ( 912633 ) on Thursday June 19, 2008 @01:32PM (#23860607) Homepage Journal
    From wikipedia:

    It is common to see examples that attempt to show that the IPv6 address space is extremely large. For example, IPv6 supports 2^128 (about 3.4x10^38) addresses, or approximately 5x10^28 addresses for each of the roughly 6.5 billion (6.5x10^9) people alive today.[1] In a different perspective, this is 252 addresses for every star in the known universe[2] - more than ten billion billion billion times as many addresses as IPv4 supported.
    Now, I don't know about you but I think that is quite reasonable for now. When we all need 5x10^28 addresses each (not to mention the extra addresses each person can get behind a NAT) then there will be a problem.. in the meantime, "5x10^28 IP addresses should be enough for anyone" ;)
  • Re:Not a thief (Score:3, Interesting)

    by mollymoo ( 202721 ) on Thursday June 19, 2008 @02:06PM (#23861277) Journal
    Better analogy: you knock on the door, a 5 year-old answers, you ask them if you can come in and they say yes. While the child and the router are capable of granting access, nether one can grant you the necessary permission.
  • Indeed (Score:3, Interesting)

    by goldcd ( 587052 ) on Thursday June 19, 2008 @02:52PM (#23862111) Homepage
    with a standard router you can name the SSID 'Please use me' - but that's about it. One vaguely interesting thing on the horizon are the dual SSID routers - the ridiculously over designed Belkin n router I understand allows you to have a private and a public/guest dual SSID thingie running. In my happy-clappy rainbow world all routers would be like that, with an option on setup for a 'non-LAN, throttled/low priority' public option available for easy selection on install. Think if people are given option to share without risk they'd click yes (well enough would).

UNIX is many things to many people, but it's never been everything to anybody.