Free Wireless Internet For Some, Miniature American Flags For Others

Uncle AndrewUncle Andrew
Filed under: @ 12:39 pm

I went over to some friends’ house Sunday to see if I couldn’t borrow them a cup of broadband. Since the explosion of high-speed Internet use by consumers coupled with the rise in wireless network access points (APs) for home use, I have set up—four? five?—friends and family members with free broadband Internet courtesy of their feckless neighbors.

Likely targets are easy to identify; they’re the ones with network names like “linksys”, “netgear”, or “belkin_54g”. In other words, the APs whose owners have not even bothered to change the default network name, or SSID. Most people who are just a hair more involved with the computing experience change the SSID to something more personal. My home SSID is “Area51”, the one I set up for my parents is “gracelan”, etc. At the very least, doing so will differentiate your wireless network from your neighbor’s, so that you know you are using your own network.

While not a certainty, a wireless access point with a default, out-of-the-box SSID is likely to have a default, out-of-the-box administrative password as well, usually “admin” or “password”. This can come in handy if you need to make any special arrangements on the network, such as port forwarding.

After a few false starts I was able to latch on to an unsecured AP using a Senao 3054 CB3 Plus Deluxe These are truly sweet little boxes, capable of operating in either client or access point mode. they’re about three times more powerful than the average access point/client, perfect for siphoning off wireless in the suburbs.

After that, I connected my own AP to the client and voila, free wireless broadband for all.

Legally, this is something of a gray area. There is no real solid law concerning the use of someone else’s Internet access via an unencrypted wireless network. It is conceivable that one could be charged with “Theft of Services” or something similar, the way you would if you tapped into their TV cable and helped yourself to some free HBO. However, the “service” you are engaging in the “theft” of is traveling through the air around you, is in fact bombarding you every minute you are at home. No one really knows what all that RF will turn out to do to people over a span of ten or twenty years; the least you should be entitled to is some high-speed Making Fiends for your suffering. The metaphor I usually use is this: if someone is throwing cookies through my window, can they really justifiably get mad if I catch a few and eat them?

Criminality only really comes into play if you access to the network to spy on or infiltrate the owner’s computer(s), or actually break into a network that is protected by a password.

The fact is, encrypting your network so that no one can use it without a password is ridiculously easy: the instructions are right there in the box with the AP, and if you aren’t going to bother to read the manual that comes with a sophisticated piece of equipiment like a wireless network device, you deserve whatever level of service you get from the product as it ships from the factory, reduced, crippled or compromised.

A couple of friends have suggested that perhaps the people who leave their wireless networks unprotected simply do not care if their neighbors use a portion of their Internet bandwidth. While a lovely idea, I don’t give this much credence. Risks of data theft and legal liability aside, I don’t think most people are quite that community-minded. Perhaps many folks are willing to let their next-door neighbor help themselves to a little Internet access, but would they be so charitable to the stranger who lives down the block, or to some guy with a laptop parked on the corner? Personally, I wouldn’t think twice about lending say, my lawn mower, to the lady across the street, but I wouldn’t trust it to some guy who just pulled up out front with a pickup truck.

This is tacky in the extreme, but I sort of think of myself as the Robin Hood of Broadband, redistributing the wealth of bandwidth to those who really need it. The justifications are self-upholding; the average home cable Internet or DSL subscriber uses the connection to check email and surf the Web. At modern broadband connection speeds there is no way that their Internet experience can be degraded by the addition of another household to the network. Those who use their Internet connection to perform more bandwidth-intensive tasks—file swapping, operating a Web server out of their house, telecommuting—are invariably more technically savvy than the average user. They take steps to secure their network, because they comprehend the risks involved with an open network. So to my mind, I am helping those with the need to enjoy the benefits of a service that will in no way be missed by those with the means.

Interestingly enough, an article on this very subject was posted on Slate just last Thursday. Worth taking a look, if this sort of thing interests you.

2 Responses to “Free Wireless Internet For Some, Miniature American Flags For Others”

  1. Joe Says:

    I started writing what I hoped would be a witty and insightful analysis of the problem. Instead I found myself hammering out a legal brief. Nobody needs that.

    My conclusion, it is ethically wrong to steal bandwidth but if somebody actually cares they should have secured their network in the first place. Just do not snoop your neighbor’s personal files or lower the level of service for them on their connection.

  2. Uncle Andrew Says:

    It really is a muddy area. I have never and would never try to crack a secured wireless network, as easy as it is to do. (Hell, that Knoppix STD disc I gave you has a couple of dandy tools on it for just that purpose.) And none of the people I do this for go on to run massive P2P networks or other massive traffic-generating applications off of their neighbors’ connection. It’s all email and Web surfing, which thanks to asynchronous data transfer takes up just about nothing in the way of bandwidth

    Like I said: those who need the extra bandwidth for their connection invariably have the knowledge and initiative to protect their network, and do so.

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