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Leaking Wireless Internet Connections

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manavmehta
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I know of many of my friends who turn on the wireless switch on their laptops in the hope that their laptop will intercept some stray wireless internet signal and thus get connected without having to pay the wireless internet service provider. Is this stealing, or would it be more accurate to call this an exploitation of a loophole? To put it differently, are my friends morally responsible for using something without paying for it, without the knowledge of the service provider, or is the service provider paying the price of not securing their services appropriately so as to prevent people from availing of them for free? And are my friends perfectly within their rights using something that they happen to find by good luck?

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I know of many of my friends who turn on the wireless switch on their laptops in the hope that their laptop will intercept some stray wireless internet signal and thus get connected without having to pay the wireless internet service provider. Is this stealing, or would it be more accurate to call this an exploitation of a loophole? To put it differently, are my friends morally responsible for using something without paying for it, without the knowledge of the service provider, or is the service provider paying the price of not securing their services appropriately so as to prevent people from availing of them for free? And are my friends perfectly within their rights using something that they happen to find by good luck?

It's the same as trespassing. If I rent a concert hall exclusively for my one thousand closest friends and you, an uninvited guest, take a seat inside, you are trespassing. The fact that I don't catch you does not mean that you have not violated my property rights.

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There are a number of places I know of (like, coffee joints) who provide wireless service as an means of attracting customers and at least two of them that I know of don't have any signs that say "Please feel free to use our wireless service", but it seems that's because it's so well known that they don't need to advertise the fact. Crud, I just realised that after we changed routers, I don't think we remembered to secure it. Well, I'll finish this and tend to that problem. I suppose it's possible that there still exist people who don't know that they should restrict access to their wireless connection if they aren't running a free service, for whatever purpose. It is, AFAIK, not possible to unambiguously provide the information "Feel free to use this signal", so you can't distinguish the ignorant router-haver who doesn't know to secure his box, from the not atypical overly generous person computer guy who provides free access for fun (and, I suppose, so that when he is on the road and needs access, the culture of providing access might be there and therefore you can be connected wherever you go.

I don't think this is exploiting a loophole at all: it is, potentially, exploiting other people's ignorance, but it also might be exploiting other people's generousity, and the latter is certainly not theft. It's nearly impossible to know which it is, in a given case, except it's more likely to be ignorance in a residential neighborhood and more likely to be generosity or a business ploy in a commercial area. If the intent could be clearly signaled, the answer would be different.

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There are two ways of looking at this - the first is similar to finding a 100 dollar bill on the street and taking it because there's no way you can find the owner. The second is "pinching" something from a shop or a business knowing that the owners will not miss what you are taking. The first instance is not theft. The second is. What I am having difficulty with is - which situation more closely parallels the leaking wireless connection?

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There are two ways of looking at this - the first is similar to finding a 100 dollar bill on the street and taking it because there's no way you can find the owner.
Let's assume that the note is lost or abandoned, and there is no way to trace the owner. Using a connection that you know is owned and used by someone, though you do not know that person's identity, is different. Wouldn't that be more like (say) taking a car from a parking lot because one does not know who the owner is?

Many people see this type of activity as different from regular stealing. Some justify is as "its not hurting anyone, I'm just using a little bandwidth". Tom addressed this issue of "trespass"..even in the concert-hall example, one might rationalize it as "it does not hurt anyone".

Further "chewing" on the concept: ff that example is not enough to chew the idea, consider this one: suppose you are a travel agent who always have a list of names of people from your city who are out for the week. What if you don't have a house and instead spend each week in one of these homes, owned by someone else. What's wrong with that? What if it were your house; would you prosecute someone who stayed there without your consent?

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Let's assume that the note is lost or abandoned, and there is no way to trace the owner. Using a connection that you know is owned and used by someone, though you do not know that person's identity, is different. Wouldn't that be more like (say) taking a car from a parking lot because one does not know who the owner is?

I think it is important to set a context to such an activity by saying whether it's hurting anyone or not. In the case above, stealing a car would certainly hurt the owner of the car because he has paid for the car out of his own money and would have to spend a lot more to replace it. Taking the 100 dollar bill might hurt someone, but the alternative of leaving the 100 dollar bill lying on the street would not benefit anyone either. And besides, if you found the owner, you would willingly return the 100 dollar bill to him, so you would take the bill simply because you lack an alternative where you can say "this action is morally superior to taking the 100 dollar bill".

Many people see this type of activity as different from regular stealing. Some justify is as "its not hurting anyone, I'm just using a little bandwidth". Tom addressed this issue of "trespass"..even in the concert-hall example, one might rationalize it as "it does not hurt anyone".

I don't see it as a rationalization. If an action does not hurt anyone, not even you, on what basis can you say that it is immoral? Would this not be similar to religions dogmatically preaching commandments regardless of their practical implications to everyday life?

Stealing into a concert hall actually does hurt someone - that someone is you, because you are hurting your self-esteem, your sense of rationality, and you are looking at only the short term implications of your action as opposed to what it means for you in the long run. If you were rich and stealing into a concert hall, your action would be purely irrational and would inevitably harm your self-esteem. If you were poor, you would be escaping your problems with pseudo solutions instead of confronting them.

Further "chewing" on the concept: ff that example is not enough to chew the idea, consider this one: suppose you are a travel agent who always have a list of names of people from your city who are out for the week. What if you don't have a house and instead spend each week in one of these homes, owned by someone else. What's wrong with that? What if it were your house; would you prosecute someone who stayed there without your consent?

Same as above

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I share my own wireless connection, and I use whatever connection is available when I travel. If the owner of the wireless connection left it open by accident, I do him very little damage by using it for a short time.

At the same time, relying on someone’s connection on a permanent basis without their consent is theft of services.

Edit: Actually, I now have a Verizon Wireless PC card that provides online connectivity wherever I can get a cell signal. Very cool :confused::confused:

Edited by GreedyCapitalist
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There are two ways of looking at this - the first is similar to finding a 100 dollar bill on the street and taking it because there's no way you can find the owner. The second is "pinching" something from a shop or a business knowing that the owners will not miss what you are taking. The first instance is not theft. The second is. What I am having difficulty with is - which situation more closely parallels the leaking wireless connection?

Of the two situations you provided, connecting to an unsecured wireless network is much like the second. When I worked at McDonald's when I was in high school I would eat a chicken nugget out of the nugget drawer every time I walked by it. McDonald's didn't notice the loss from the nuggets I ate, but I was definitely stealing from them.

On a particular network, there is a finite amount of bandwidth (just like there is a finite amount of chicken nuggets) provided by the ISP. If you are using the network to access the internet, you are occupying some of this bandwidth and it's unavailable to the person(s) who actually paid for it. These people may not notice the bandwidth you are using, but it's theft nonetheless.

I learned the hard way in regard to a wireless network. I had a 4 computer network set-up to access the internet in an apartment I lived in. One day I checked the DHCP server and there were 7 computers connected! People in my apartment complex were leaching on my network. Maybe it was payback for all the chicken nuggets I stole :confused:.

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Wireless networks are set up, by default, to advertise to any nearby computer, "use me." Windowx XP SP2 connects to any wireless network which advertises its existence.

If you buy a wireless access point and leave it in its default configuration, which is allowing any computer to access it, then you are inviting everybody in range to use it. The concert-hall analogy is leaving your doors wide open and not selling or collecting tickets.

If you want to let only authorized users use your wireless network, there are very easy ways to set that up. If you don't set it up, then to all concerned you are offering a free service to the world.

It's sort of like a website: if you set one up just for your friends, don't be surprised if people across the country also visit. If you want to allow only your friends to see it, then set up a simple authorization scheme.

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I'm on a wireless network that I installed at my house. With the booster I installed I can have access from the shed in the very back end of my property. It's where we go to relax and my fiance studies. My cable company that I get my connection from has specific terms of service that allow me to use a certain number of connections of computers on my network.

If by my inaction of not securing my network, and one of my neighbors hopped on my connection I would be violating the contract I've got with my ISP. Mind you, from the front of my property I can see 3 networks other than mine of which mine is the only secured one. My study shed has 2 available networks 1 of which is secured. Now my finace and I both have laptops and I've got 2 pc's on our network. Other than having way to much time on my hands one weekend, it was a valuable lesson in securing your property.

I view piggybacking on one of my neighbors signals no different morally than me running a splitter on his satellite dish. Sure it costs him nothing and I get some really cool channels but I am not costing him anything directly. What I am doing is depriving the satellite company of revenue for the service and/or product they provide. Same goes true with booster cards for satellite systems or having your cable guy hit the magical switch and turning every channel on. It's not costing anyone to provide the additonal "bandwith" of allowing me to watch FoxSportsWorld or ZTV. But what isn't happening is those groups are not providing them free of charge. They go to a real expense to provide coverage and broadcast my needed fix of rugby and cricket so they are worth paying for.

I've looked into getting something akin to a T1 and setting up my own wireless ISP for the neighborhood. It's not as expensive as you'd think or as hard but if people are using a service I'm providing without paying me for it, it does have a real cost to me by denying me a revenue stream that rightfully is belongs to me. If I want to give away free connections as an inducement for someone to do something like buy coffee from me but I don't. The serivce I'm providing is the internet connection. If I want to provide free WiFi as an inducement to get people in my door there is nothing wrong with me using that signal.

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ISP owner chiming in here.

Borrowing a neighbor's unsecured wireless connection, even for a little while, is not only tresspassing on your neighbor but it is also stealing from the ISP. Even for a little bit.

If I were to catch one of my customers with an open wireless access point and their neighbors were leaching from it, I would insist that the wireless connection be secured or I would remove their service. If the neighbors want Internet access, they can buy some. The terms of my service limit each account holder to use within their own household, and it is me who set the terms for my service, no one else. It is not up to the customer to decide if they can share it wirelessly for free with their neighbors, even though they are paying for it.

I didn't build my business to sell one account to the entire world and have them all share it. I'd be bankrupt in a week.

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ISP owner chiming in here.

Borrowing a neighbor's unsecured wireless connection, even for a little while, is not only tresspassing on your neighbor but it is also stealing from the ISP.  Even for a little bit. 

If I were to catch one of my customers with an open wireless access point and their neighbors were leaching from it, I would insist that the wireless connection be secured or I would remove their service.  If the neighbors want Internet access, they can buy some.  The terms of my service limit each account holder to use within their own household, and it is me who set the terms for my service, no one else.  It is not up to the customer to decide if they can share it wirelessly for free with their neighbors, even though they are paying for it.

I didn't build my business to sell one account to the entire world and have them all share it.  I'd be bankrupt in a week.

I agree 100% with you here Tom. I bothered to read the TOS and it origianlly limited me to just 1 computer per IP. They loosened it up to mean any units specifically on my network with my permission (for the occasional fragfest). My old apartment Waldenweb.com had an OC3 and fibre throughout the complex. So many wireless nets got set up you literally couldn't differentiate from one network to another. The owners liked it first since it cut down on the number of trouble shooting calls but pretty soon a handfull of people set up their own isp's and were leasing their bandwith out to the rest of the complex. Now that is downright theft. Plus this had the direct effect of driving the cost up for those of us who actually paid for the service.

It took a real BOFH to basically POD the illegal isp's out of existance or sever their connection to the fiber when it was found. Their was a sort of geek jihad as first but after a while things finally calmed down when they threatened to charge you based on bandwith usage.

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I also agree with Tom on this one. It is absolutely theft no matter what sort of spin someone tries to put on it. Did you contribute, pay or get permission to use the persons network or internet connection? I dont think it matters how dumb they are for leaving it unsecured, or how inconsquential your use is, when it comes down to it is not yours to use.

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How is the service provided by a service company not property? Do you mean that because it isn't a object you can pick up and hold in your hand?

The service sold by a service company is its property. Intellectual property is another type of property which is not directly palpable.

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Theft involves depriving someone of their property, so no this isnt theft. That doesnt automatically mean that it isnt wrong though.

This is theft because, you are depriving someone of their property, specifically a portion of the bandwidth they paid for. If you have three unauthorized people surfing the internet on the connection you pay for, and you start downloading a file, it's possible that your download speed will be slower than if those people weren't using your connection.

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The service sold by a service company is its property. Intellectual property is another type of property which is not directly palpable.
Can you quote the terms in your customer service agreement which specifically prohibits having a "leaky" wireless? Or are you saying that you'd terminate the service under the "can terminate without cause" clause? I can't find anything that specifically addresses that with my ISP, so I'm wondering how widespread such restrictions are in the business.

The important thing to remember is that in this case, the thief (in fact: contract violator) is the customer and not the third party. A person using wireless has an obligation to secure their connection. If a wireless connection is available, since you cannot (easily) tell where it comes from, and it is reasonable to assume that the connection is being (justly) provided for free to anyone interested in using it, you have the right to use that connection. If there were sufficient reason to assume that the connection is not being provided for anyone who wants to use it, then you might be able to make an argument that a person should go door-to-door looking for the source to ask permission to use it.

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The target of the theft and the injured party is the service provider who prohibits such things in their terms of service, and possibly the end user who sets up such a wireless network with no intention of sharing it. There is the potential for either 1 or 2 injured parties, but in all cases it is theft without the expressed permission of the source party.

If you find a car parked on the road, and someone unknowningly left the keys in it and the doors unlocked -- that is not an open invitation to take the car. If you do, you are stealing it.

From Tx3's Acceptable Use Policy:

5. Customer may not sell, resell, assign, or transfer the Account, or this Agreement, without the prior written consent of Tx3. This includes resale of services, either in whole or in part. Customer may not share the account with or disclose the password to other individuals outside the household or organization.
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The wording in the agreement is quite clear, esp. the last sentence, and does inform your customers unambiguously that they may not share a connection (actually, it is perhaps a bit draconian, since it prohibits visitors from using the connection in a house -- though I understand that you may have privity of contract concerns). There doesn't seem to be such an analogous restriction on Roadrunner.

The target of the theft and the injured party is the service provider who prohibits such things in their terms of service, and possibly the end user who sets up such a wireless network with no intention of sharing it.
I would agree to the former, in that the end user might be engaging in theft if running an unauthorised hotpspot (or, it could be negligent behavior, less serious an offense but still bad). I don't see how the third party can be considered to have committed a theft, since it is not possible for him to know of the terms of the contract. "Theft" has a knowledge requirement.
If you find a car parked on the road, and someone unknowningly left the keys in it and the doors unlocked -- that is not an open invitation to take the car.  If you do, you are stealing it.
That's true, that cars are presumed to be absolutely private, but not at all analogous. A better analogy, rightswise, is trespassing. A passerby has a right (contextual, of course) to walk up to your door and ring the bell during "normal" hours and, for example, ask directions or offer to clean your gutters. That implicit right normally only extends to the front porch, and can easily be overridden by a no tresspassing sign. In some communities, that right does not exist (usually, you can tell by the presence of a guard and/or a gate), and in other communities, it extends to the back yard. There is, in the US (and probably everywhere else), a contextual acceptance of the right to use any open wireless connection, just as there is a contextual right to view any freely-accessible web page (i.e. not involving hacking a password-protected page). It is trivial to secure a wireless connection, just as it is trivial to post a no-trespassing sign to negate the presumption of permission to enter. Failure to provide the least indication that you don't want to let others use your wireless connection can only be reasonably interpreted as permission.
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DavidOdden has it right. Unsecured wireless networks must be assumed to have been made available to the public. That is the way the technology works, and is the normal implication of wireless networks advertising themselves to every wireless-enabled device.

Wireless networks secured with any kind of authorization scheme must be assumed to be private. An authorization scheme is the equivalent of a "private property: no trespassing" sign. The lack of such a scheme is the equivalent of the lack of such a sign. Such schemes are perfectly simple to put into place, just as such signs are.

Should a person not authorized to share his internet connection fail to set up an authorization scheme for his wireless network, and should others use his internet connection via the unsecured wireless network, then he is responsible for breach of contract, not those others.

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I think it is important to set a context to such an activity by saying whether it's hurting anyone or not. ...  If an action does not hurt anyone, not even you, on what basis can you say that it is immoral? ...Stealing into a concert hall actually does hurt someone - that someone is you, because you are hurting your self-esteem, your sense of rationality, ...

I'd like to address the issue mentioned above.

1) For this current post, I do not want to discuss whether somone else is hurt by accessing their wireless or not. That is not the issue to which I am responding.

2) Also, I will grant that some actions hurt the evil-doer, in the form of hurting his self-esteem.

However, when someone hurts his self-esteem it is because he judges what he is doing to be wrong; isn't that so? If so, it is insufficient to argue that Action-1 is wrong because it will hurt your self-esteem while Action-2 is right because it will not. While this might be true, it is insufficient. It actually "begs the question": it assumes that Action-1 will induce guilt and damaged self-esteem while Action-2 will not.

To take a bizzare example, if someone were to say: "Murdering a man is wrong because I will feel guilty, but murdering a woman is fine because I will not." One would have to say: "Well you should."

Again, the purpose of this post is not to say that using an oipen wireless connection is wrong. Rather, it is insufficient to say: it is okay because I feel no guilt about it.

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It is trivial to secure a wireless connection, just as it is trivial to post a no-trespassing sign to negate the presumption of permission to enter. Failure to provide the least indication that you don't want to let others use your wireless connection can only be reasonably interpreted as permission.

This is wrong. It is not trivial for the average Joe Blow Internet user to secure a wireless connection. They are lucky if they can get connected to an unsecured one themselves. In most cases, they don't even have any idea that others can use their wide-open access points. I deal with this issue all time in our tech support.

In fact, when I find and tell people during site visits that others are connected to their access points, they are most often shocked and then angry that their neighbors would take advantage of them. I then proceed to lock it down for them.

If they only knew how to put up the "no trespassing sign", every single one that I've talked to would have. Based on this, I think it is appropriate to assume that wireless networks found in the wild are not meant to be public unless they are explicitly advertised as such in other media (print/radio/signage/etc), and that the other arguments presented here are rationalization for getting away with tresspassing and theft.

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I agree with DavidOdden's "reasonable man" standard. Legally, that's what a jury should use.

Morally too, the reasonable man standard is useful. I can ask myself: knowing what I know about people, is it reasonable for me to assume that they have left their access open to me with an understanding that I might use it? Is it reasonable to assume that they will not mind my using it?

I agree with Tom that the majority of people who have open access points do not want their neighbours on it.

From a legal perspective, how would one "peel the next layer" of a "reasonable man" standard? It is true that securing access is something that does not take an expert; yet, many laymen (who are otherwise pretty reasonable) just do not think of doing so. Is it reasonable to take such ignorance into account?

Morally, if I judge that my neighbours probably do not realize that I can get on their networks, should that judgement stop me from using their access point?

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