Borrowing Wi-Fi from Neighbours: Right or Wrong?

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We are world citizens on the go, and so is our technology. As we increasingly access the Internet via smartphones, laptops, tablets and notebooks, we all know someone (or maybe it’s you?) who ‘borrows’ a little Wi-Fi from the neighbours. According to Wi-Fi Alliance, 53 percent of people surveyed said they steal or borrow neighbours’ Wi-Fi in an effort to connect to the Web. This is especially easy and tempting in cities, where neighbours live close to one another and open networks with no password protection seem to be begging to be tapped into. Where’s the harm? All you’re doing is borrowing a little Wi-Fi, right?

Wrong. While there’s no doubt that Wi-Fi is a technology that will change city living (or already has), there are a number of reasons to avoid this particular temptation, including the significant legal, moral and personal security issues that come with illegally accessing and sharing it.

Is it Legal?

In the U.S., the Federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1986 makes it a crime to “…knowingly access a computer without authorization,” which includes accessing wireless routers. Over in the U.K., the Communications Act of 2003 states that a “person who (a) dishonestly obtains an electronic communications service, and (b) does so with intent to avoid payment of a charge applicable to the provision of that service, is guilty of an offence.” If, on the other hand, you are the one providing or “sharing” an open network, it’s possible you’re in violation of your Internet service provider’s terms of use. Either way, unauthorized sharing and accessing Wi-Fi connections is illegal.

To date there exists only a handful of Wi-Fi theft cases that have been pursued. In cities, where thousands access the Internet daily via their neighbours, it would be close to impossible to address each violation. However, several cases have popped up over the years.

In 2007, Sam Peterson of Cedar Springs, Mich., found himself facing a felony charge for accessing a local coffee shop’s free Wi-Fi from his parked car. Peterson opted to pay the $400 penalty rather than try his luck in court. In March of last year, Ryan Harris of Oregon faced federal charges for making and selling Internet hijacking tools to aide thousands of people in illegally accessing their neighbours Wi-Fi. This was one of the U.S.’ more high-profile cases of Internet theft, and Harris was found guilty of seven counts of wire fraud, for which he was sentenced to three years in prison

Is it ethical?

If accessing a neighbour’s Wi-Fi is illegal, does that automatically mean it’s also unethical? Stories of neighbours doing the “neighbourly” thing and sharing Wi-Fi can be found with a simple Google search. Apartment Therapy recently posted “Neighborly Behavior: Do You Share or Borrow Wi-Fi?” in which author Anthony Nguyen shares his apartment building’s Wi-Fi protocol for new neighbours. He writes, “…we slip them a small note under their doors offering temporarily ‘free’ Wi-Fi so they can get their stuff set up and running as quickly as possible.” While Nguyen acknowledges this act “…may be considered unethical and even illegal,” he asks his readers to chime in with their opinions. The comments are plentiful and range in opinion from agreement to total disgust. Some comment-leavers even shared their personal practices for getting and giving free neighbour-to-neighbour Wi-Fi.

Use of a neighbour’s Wi-Fi may actually cause more harm than you realize. If you’re borrowing Wi-Fi to watch streaming video or to download large files, your neighbour’s connection will most certainly be slowed or otherwise compromised. In urban settings, where multiple people might access one neighbour’s open network, the slowdown may be even more significant.

Is it safe?

Finally, unauthorized sharing of open networks opens up personal security issues to consider, especially identity theft and liability concerns. According to LifeLock, the U.S.-based industry leader in identity theft issues, identity theft is one of the fastest-growing crimes in the states, and Javelin Strategy & Research found that more than 11.6 million Americans became victims of identity fraud in 2011, costing Americans $18 billion. Falling victim to identity theft should be a concern to both the neighbour doing the “borrowing” and the owner of the open network. No one is safe using open networks illegally.

In addition to opening oneself up to identity theft, there is also a liability concern for the illegal acts of others using your Wi-Fi. According to USA Today, “When someone uses your Internet connection for illegal activity, it could leave you as the unwitting target of a police investigation.” Whether you consider sharing Wi-Fi moral or not, the threat of sharing liability should be enough to steer you away from possessing an open network.

The Future

To minimize the sharing and stealing of Wi-Fi, some cities have opted to provide free Wi-Fi networks. The first-ever U.S. “Hot City” was Grand Haven, Mich., and several major cities around the world followed suit. Just a few weeks ago, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that Google will be offering its first free urban Wi-Fi network to a 10-block area surrounding Google’s offices in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighbourhood.

The use of open networks for accessing the Internet is a complex and ongoing issue. Whether you’re the one providing open access or jumping onto it, one thing is for certain: There are no guarantees of safety or security when it comes to accessing Internet via open networks.

Meaghan Edelstein is a thought leader in social media and mobile marketing whose stories have been featured on Mashable. You can read more from Meaghan on her blog or follow her at @megse34

Image via Grey World