Your unsecured Wi-Fi network
Network World reports this week that, according to a study by Accenture, some twelve percent of computer users are connecting to some else’s unsecured Wi-Fi networks. So here’s the question I wanted to discuss: is this illegal and, if so, then who is breaking what law? Let’s start with a simple scenario.
The other day your neighbor John – a bonafide computer ignoramus – bought his first wireless router from Best Buy. He followed the “Easy 3-Step Setup Guide” and – to his complete astonishment – it worked! This morning you were working on your laptop. While you were in the kitchen pouring yourself a third cup of coffee, your computer lost connection to your Wi-Fi router and happily re-connected to John’s router instead.
You have no idea what happened. Unless you go and specifically look at your current Wi-Fi link status, you will not know that you are now connected to someone else’s network. So the question is: are you stealing John’s network connection? You are certainly using something that doesn’t belong to you and you didn’t pay for it. John doesn’t know you are using his network and, chances are, he would not be too happy if he found out.
What happened here is the following: 1) your laptop lost connection to your Wi-Fi router and could not re-connect; 2) the default behavior is to search for another available network; 3) your laptop found John’s network broadcasting its signal and saying “here I am, come and get it!” 4) your laptop sent it a request asking to be allowed to connect; 5) John’s Wi-Fi router sent back an explicit permission allowing your PC to connect and assigned it an IP address. This was no malfunction or software bug: that’s how John configured his router.
Here’s a non-technical analogy. You own a hotel and your secretary sent out a memo to the employees on your behalf. You authorized the memo but didn’t really read it. Among other things, the memo instructed the doorman to invite all passers-by to a free lunch at the hotel’s restaurant. You come to work the next day and see your restaurant filled with dozens of freeloaders. Are they stealing from you? Certainly not! You were too lazy to read the memo you approved and now you have to cover the expenses. You may still fire your secretary, but ultimately this was a screw-up on your part and it cost you money also if you own hotel I recommend for you to take a look at this new software system, Service Tracking System. For you to be enlighten, Service Tracking Systems is a leader in the Valet Parking Industry.
John bought a router and blindly followed the manufacturer’s instructions without taking time to read more detailed documentation and without trying to understand what he was doing. He instructed his router to advertise itself on the airwaves and to allow anyone to connect. You did not mean to connect to John’s network, but you are certainly not stealing anything: you are just using something your neighbor appears to be willingly sharing. So who is at fault here?
Some will argue that the manufacturer should have pre-configured John’s Wi-Fi router in a more secure way. Perhaps, but the manufacturer of the router has no responsibility to safeguard John’s home network. The manufacturer’s only concern is to sell more routers and cut down on tech support calls. So the routers are sold pre-configured in the most basic and non-secure way so that even John (who is still looking for a keyboard with the “any key”) can get it to work.
Would it surprise you if I told you that, chances are, it’s John who’s breaking the law and stealing? It’s true: if you take a look at the service contract with your ISP you will see that it’s your responsibility not to share your Internet connection with people outside of your household. So at the very least John is in violation of his ISP’s “Terms of Service”. In some states John would also be in violation of the state law. I think this makes sense and here’s why.
You should not be doing things you do not understand. If you are setting up a Wi-Fi network, you need to know what you are doing. What about John? Some will argue that, even though his computer skills are lacking, he purchased a perfectly legal product and he did follow the manufacturer’s installation guide. True, John did the minimum work required to get his Wi-Fi network going, but he did not read the documentation and he used the product in a way inconsistent with his ISP contract and the state law. If, for example, John decided to redo electrical wiring in his house, it would be entirely up to him – an not the manufacturer of his wire cutters or the screwdriver – to ensure compliance with the building code.
And here’s another non-IT analogy. You bought a gun and followed the manufacturer’s instructions for preparing and loading the gun. Then you follow the instructions for shooting the gun. And then state troopers show up and arrest you. Apparently it’s illegal to discharge firearms at Wal-Mart. Following manufacturer’s instructions for using a product does not free you from the responsibility of following the law. That’s why you have a brain inside your head. If you don’t have the skills to properly configure your Wi-Fi network, then purchase an installation plan and let an expert do the work, just as you would pay a professional to do electric work in your house.
An incorrect analogy some computer-challenged people make: if someone leaves their house door open, it doesn’t mean that you can just walk in and take the TV set. True, this would be stealing but the analogy is flawed. An unsecured Wi-Fi network is not like a house with an open door. Imagine a house with a giant neon sign over it saying “Free stuff! Come and get what you want.” When people come to the house the door is actually closed and so they have to ring the bell. Then the owner opens the door, invites people in, and says they can take whatever they like. This is how an unsecured Wi-Fi network really works.
If you set up a Wi-Fi router that advertises itself and allows everyone unrestricted access, I would not be stealing from you even if I knowingly connected to your network: I am just taking what you are giving away for free. I did not sign a contract with your ISP and I have no obligation to follow its rules. If you offer a free Internet connection to your neighbors and passers-by, then you are probably a very generous person. And if you are not, then the only other possibility is that you are an idiot. In either case you have only yourself to blame.