Why it's OK to 'steal' Wi-Fi

SANTA BARBARA, CALIF. -- (Disclaimer: Note that this posting is opinion only, and not meant as legal advice. Do not break the law.)

TIME Magazine printed this week a piece called, "Confessions of a Wi-Fi Thief," in which author Lev Grossman admits to using his neighbors' open Wi-Fi connections from inside his apartment.

Grossman writes that "stealing" Wi-Fi might be illegal (statutes vary according to where you live) but "definitely unethical." He also mentions a recent survey that found a slim majority -- 53% -- have "stolen" Wi-Fi.

I disagree with Grossman. I don't think it's unethical to "steal" Wi-Fi -- or even possible without deliberate hacking. And it shouldn't be illegal to simply use an open, unprotected wireless network.

There are two reasons why "stealing" Wi-Fi isn't -- or, at least, shouldn't be -- considered theft:

1. By using a Wi-Fi network you're asking for, and receiving, permission from the owner.

When you open up your trusty laptop, check for available networks, choose one and click "Connect," you're instructing your computer hardware and software to communicate with the hardware and software that's providing the Wi-Fi network and ask permission to use the network.

When you do this, a router either grants permission, and assigns an IP address for you to use, or denies permission. If the connection simply works, it means by definition that the network is set up to automatically grant you permission to use it, and to actively provide the means for you to do so. That's what "connecting to a Wi-Fi network means." Your computer works on your behalf to ask permission to use the network, and the router works on the behalf of its owner to grant that permission.

The owner of the network can choose -- and most do -- to deny permission to strangers. For example, it's common to set up a Wi-Fi network that grants permission only to specific computers, or only to users who have been given a specific password. This system is designed to automate the process of granting or denying permission.

Hacking, of course, is an entirely different matter. If someone uses password cracking tools, or hacker techniques to get into a system that is not set up to grant permission to that user, well, that's clearly unethical and should be illegal.

So attempting to connect to a Wi-Fi network (without deliberate hacking) is by definition a process of asking permission to use that network. If you get connected -- again, by definition -- then the router has granted that permission to you.

2. Your computer can't be on their Wi-Fi network unless their network is in your computer.

The conventional wisdom is that using an open Wi-Fi network is theft. The argument goes something like this. "It's my network, and my bandwidth, and by using it you're stealing. It's just like breaking into my house and eating my food. What gives you the right to use my property?"

But that metaphor doesn't match what really happens when you connect to a Wi-Fi network.

A wireless router isn't passive, or contained within the home or business of the owner. It actively broadcasts a radio signal dozens or hundreds of feet in 360 degrees. If you can see your neighbor's network on your computer, that means he's breaking into YOUR house, not that you're breaking into his. That signal penetrates your walls and your body (the full effect on health has yet to be determined conclusively) and, of course, your computer. He's affecting to a small degree what's going on inside your computer. (What gives him the right to use YOUR property?)

If you connect via the signal of your neighbor's router, you're connecting to something that is inside your home, and has been placed inside your home without your permission. So it's not like breaking into your neighbor's house to eat his food. It's more like your neighbor breaks into your house without your permission and leaves his food in your refrigerator. If you eat it, the legality or ethics of that usage or consumption is different, isn't it?

Of course, the law is the law, and using someone's Wi-Fi network has been prosecuted in the past. I'm not saying you should break the law, and "steal" bandwidth via someone else's Wi-Fi network.

But I am saying that it shouldn't be illegal to use an open Wi-Fi network, nor should it be considered unethical. I'm saying the laws should change, and our thinking about it should change, too.

If anyone doesn't want people using their network, all they have to do is configure their router to stop granting permission.

RSS feed icon

Like this stuff? Subscribe to the RSS feed.

To express your thoughts on Computerworld content, visit Computerworld's Facebook page, LinkedIn page and Twitter stream.
7 Wi-Fi vulnerabilities beyond weak passwords
Shop Tech Products at Amazon