I have seen this issue popup quite a lot and it is an interesting topic of discussion. There have been many interesting cases of people being arrested for accessing open Wi-Fi connections as legal systems adapt to the presence of this new technology. Unfortunately most of the prominent court cases have been based around prosecuting the defendant with unauthorized computer access and in some cases theft. Certainly many people seem to share the opinion that making use of a connection you did not have access to is in some way stealing, or at least morally wrong.
In this article I argue that accessing an unprotected Wi-Fi network is not stealing, nor is it in any way morally wrong. I have chosen the term unprotected Wi-Fi to remove any ambiguity, so as to refer to all Wi-Fi networks that have encryption disabled, and offer a DHCP lease and network access to any device that requests it. This is in contrast to the term open Wi-Fi, which some people take to mean Wi-Fi networks that are intended to be open for anyone to access.
It is important to distinguish between an unsecured Wi-Fi network, and a Wi-Fi network with any form of security. Many consider a Wi-Fi network with only WEP encryption to be unsecured, however for the purposes of this article a WEP protected Wi-Fi network is considered a secure network. The reason many people consider WEP to be equivalent to an unsecured network is because it is a very old form of security, and it can be bypassed these days often in just a few minutes.
The fact that WEP is all but useless technically is irrelevant here. What is important is that the owner made an attempt to secure their network, and by doing so made it clear that the network was not open for anyone to use. This is a big difference between leaving a Wi-Fi connection unsecured, and making an attempt to secure it. An attempt to secure a wireless network however weak is still making the intention of the owner clear. This is equivalent to hanging a keep out or no trespassing sign on a private property. While it can be easily bypassed, there can be no question that doing so is going against the owners wishes.
This is in contrast to an unsecured Wi-Fi network where the intention of the owner is ambiguous, and we only have limited information to go by. With an unsecured Wi-Fi network not even the most minimal of efforts have been made to keep people out, despite it often being trivial to do so. With a device that broadcasts its presence and allows anyone to join upon request it is fair to assume you are allowed to use this network. This situation is similar to trespassing law in many countries, whereby it cannot be considered trespassing if no effort was made to warn people of the private property.
One of the most common arguments against using an unsecured Wi-Fi connection is to compare the situation to someone leaving the door to their house unlocked and arguing that this is analogous to leaving a Wi-Fi connection unsecured. Unfortunately this analogy is specious as best.
A Wireless AP broadcasts radio waves in all directions for hundreds of feet announcing its presence and in many cases supplying the authorization and information necessary to join a network. An AP is set by its owner to either allow anyone to join the network, or to only allow people with the key to join. In this way the AP is a somewhat intelligent device acting as a gatekeeper following the orders of its owner. Unlike a door which is passive and awaits interaction, an AP is an active device sending out broadcasts and responding authoritively to requests for access.
This is what prevents any comparison to an unlocked door from being accurate. When people connect to an unsecured Wi-Fi network, they are doing so because the network advertised itself as available, and when they requested to join they were granted access. This is not the case with an unlocked door which can be physically identified as belonging to a particular residence, and which generally would require other boundaries to be broken before it can be accessed.
Unlike a locked door a wireless access point has no physically distinguishing characteristics to aid in determining if the access point was intended to be private or public. Except for the fact that is generally trivial to enable security or even change the SSID to reflect the owner’s intentions. Without even the smallest effort taken to communicate that a wireless network is intended to be private it is only reasonable to assume it is intended to be public.
From summary it would appear that the wireless network had been deliberately configured to accept connections from anyone. Just because someone configures their devices so that it broadcasts and authorizes anyone who wishes to join either due to ignorance or disregard, should someone really be arrested for then joining that network?
Understandably many people see this issue as purely a moral issue, and so wish to reduce the argument to its simplest form. Simply because someone, for whatever reasons leaves something unlocked or available, that does not give an opportunist the right to take advantage of that. Unfortunately the situation with unsecured wireless APs is more complex than a simple unlocked door analogy, and reducing it to such a simple form leaves us with a useless analogy that is no longer accurate.
Many people are quick to label using an unsecured Wi-Fi network that the owner did not want to be used, as stealing that person’s connection or service. Most of the time however this is simply inaccurate for the same reasons as downloading a song or a movie is not stealing. The core concept of stealing let alone any dictionary definition requires that the owner be deprived of their property or service in some way for some amount of time. This is rarely the case with Wi-Fi ‘theft’.
In much of the world internet access is not metered, nor is there any finite usage limit. There is no theft of service in thiese situations as the owner of the internet connection is not deprived of using his service in anyway. They may not even be aware that someone is making use of the connection.
There are of course exceptions to this. In countries where interest access is ridiculously limited such as Australia or in developing countries, or where someone takes advantage of the network and saturates the connection, then it is accurate to say that the owner is being deprived of something which is theirs, so an argument can be made that it is indeed stealing.
There is also the viewpoint that since the wireless AP is broadcasting onto your private property without needing any effort on your part it is not stealing. Similar to how accessing television or radio signals broadcast over public frequencies cannot be considered stealing, nor can accessing a publicly broadcasted Wi-Fi signal. I am not convinced this argument is similar enough to the Wi-Fi situation o have merit, however I find it irrelevant as accessing unsecured Wi-Fi cannot be said to be stealing as the deprivation criterion has not been met.
Some people also hold the view that accessing an unsecured Wi-FI for internet access without explicit permission from the owner is not just stealing from the owner, but also from the ISP who provides the internet service. This is simply incorrect. The ISP is irrelevant here unless the contract specifically disallows providing internet access through unsecured Wi-Fi. Most contracts however simply contain a clause against reselling and not against making it freely accessible have. Accessing the internet through an unsecured Wi-Fi connection is no more stealing from the ISP than watching a friends cable TV is stealing from the cable company.
For the most part however people who connect to an unsecured Wi-Fi connection are in all likelihood only going to only be visiting some simple web -pages and perhaps emailing. There will always be some people who will take unfair advantage of such a connection or use up a download quote on metered connections, but these are exceptions to the rule. Generally, making use of an unsecured Wi-Fi connection does no harm to the owner and should not be considered stealing.
There is also the question of who should bear the responsibility when someone connects to an unsecured Wi-Fi network. Most people are quick to blame the clients along with accusations of theft, but is this really fair? As I point out a bit further down, when someone installs a wireless access point most of the time they must consciously leave security disabled, or at least be aware that they have done so.
If someone leaves their car unlocked with the keys in the ignition and it gets stolen, many places will hold the owner of the car responsible. Many regions have explicit laws against this situation which find the owner at fault. As much as taking advantage of a car with the keys left in it is wrong, we live in a world where crime is inevitable, as such people must be responsible to a reasonable degree for their possessions.
That is not a terrific example as stealing a car is indisputably morally wrong – no question about it. This is less true for connecting to an unsecured Wi-Fi however. While an analogy can be made between leaving an AP unsecured and broadcasting and leaving a car unlocked with keys inside, it is obvious that the car belongs to somebody and is not yours to take. It is rare that it is as obvious that an unsecured Wi-Fi network is not intended to be used.
In most cities there are literally hundreds of networks, some may be provided by a city or council, some may be provided by some sort of organization or business and some may be provided by people genuinely happy to share their connection. With Wi-FI being near ubiquitous how are most people to know if a network is intended to be free for use by anyone or intended to be private? The answer is they cannot, nor should they have to. The onus must be on the owner of the AP to read the manual that came with their device, or to have someone to set it up for them if they lack the knowledge to do so.
It is also important to keep in mind that many laptops and devices will connect to an unsecured wireless network by default without user intervention. Many people may not realize they are not authorized to be on an unsecured wireless network and will only note that their computer has picked up free internet. To prosecute people for using their devices as intended when enabled only due to the ignorance or laziness of an AP owner is wrong.
A more accurate analogy to stealing a car with keys in the ignition might be accessing a public website. If a family or individual decided to place some private photos on a website and only share them with friends, yet made no effort to protect them and someone stumbled across them, who is at fault? Websites are intended to be public unless locked down, so how could the person who stumbled across an apparently public website be expected to know any better?
The ignorance of the owner is not an excuse here. There is no need to know about .htaccess or such as hosting companies provide a simple interface to password protect directories and generally provide free support. Just as a person accessing a public website could not know the owner did not intend for the website to be public, most people accessing an unsecured Wi-Fi network would have no reason to assume the network was not intended to be open. In all cases the owner must bear responsibility for securing their property without exception.
There may be many reasons that people deliberately leave their wireless network unsecured, while being aware of the risks. Whether motivated by convenience, compatibility or any other reason is irrelevant. If you are aware of the risks and decide to leave your wireless network unsecured then you must accept the possibility of people connecting to and using it. Leaving your front door unlocked may be more convenient, but you could not expect any insurance payout in the event of a robbery.
These days there really is very little excuse to leave a wireless network unsecured as a result of ignorance. Every router or modem in made in at least the last five years either stresses the importance of enabling security for your wireless AP, or more commonly will force you to make a decision when first setting up the device.
There is no prerequisite of technical knowledge required to enable security. Wireless AP manufacturers are well aware that most people do not have even a basic technical understanding and their devices are designed accordingly. When setting up the majority of devices, you must explicitly choose an option equivalent to “No security” which is generally advised and warned against, or choose one of the security methods and provide a password or key. Indeed, many devices these days go so far as to have a default key or passphrase as a sticker on the box allowing the devices to be secure by default and making it easy for clients to join.
Some of the most common Wireless AP’s for consumers are the NetGear WGT624, NetGear WNR350, Linksys WAG160N, Dlink DI-524 and the Belkin Wireless G router. All of these routers have been around for around 5 years or more. They all provide strong, hard to miss advice recommending against leaving security off, and all force you to explicitly disable or enable security during the quick setup.
Unfortunately the only argument I have ever encountered against this rather basic axiom was based on lies and misrepresentation. The fact of the matter is it is difficult to avoid making a choice to enable security on any router from the last 5 years. If we acknowledge that the majority of people operating an unsecured Wi-Fi network explicitly chose not to enable security, it is only reasonable to assume they have no problem with people openly using their unsecured Wi-Fi network.
In the event that someone honestly may not have any technical knowledge at all and finds it all too confusing, it is likely they will have someone qualified to set things up for them. The qualified person will either enable security for this person, or explain the choices in which case again the owner of the wireless network must make a choice to disable security.
Even if someone happened to have an exceptionally old or uncommon router that does not advise or force you to make a choice regarding security, there are still many other avenues in which users will have been informed:
- Their Operating System
- Whoever is responsible for doing computer maintenance or repair
Additionally, in the event that someone owns a very old router and had somehow managed to avoid all the above avenues which make clear the ramifications of running an open Wi-Fi, it Is likely that the router firmware will be updated at some point, then making it necessary to make a choice regarding security.
The only counterpoint I have seen to this was a rather idiotic argument trying to compare people deliberately choosing to have security disabled for whichever reason to people being taken advantage of in Nigerian mail scams. This is also the prevailing problem with the most popular view on this issue today, equating a willful ignorant owner of a wireless AP with being a hapless victim taken advantage of.
Of course there are exceptions to my argument. There may be people with very old pre-2005 routers who never needed to update the router firmware or read the manual. These people never needed to hire anyone more qualified because their setup already worked. They didn’t pay attention to warnings mention by media about leaving your Wi-Fi networks unsecured and didn’t consider warnings from the OS to be relevant.
These people are the exception to the rule and as such do not negate what should be considered the general guiding rule. If someone left their Wi-Fi unsecured it was most likely intentional regardless of the reasons for doing so. It takes a very special case to claim true ignorance and to ignore all of the various methods people are made aware of the risks of running an unsecured Wi-Fi network.
The legal issues of connecting to an unsecured Wi-Fi network are complex and tend to differ substantially by country or state. Unfortunately many of the most public cases from the US and UK of people accessing an unprotected Wi-Fi network have resulted in people being prosecuted for stealing or theft. This is wrong on many levels, not least because it ignores any culpability attributable to the owner
Much legislation against illegally accessing a computer or computer network makes use of the word authorization. In a purely technical context there should be no issue here, as when connecting to an unsecured Wi-Fi network you must be authorized by the AP to do so. Of course, the law is about the intent of people and not the actions of machines. Even so, should the fact that owners of Wi-Fi access points decline to explicitly protect their network not be taken as an implicit authorization?
In Australia, Canada, the UK and likely most countries it is illegal to access an unsecured Wi-Fi network without explicit permission from the owner. In contrast to common sense where you would assume an unprotected network is open, you must instead make sure you have the consent of the owner of the network you are connecting to. This creates a somewhat dangerous situation…what if a small café or business offered free Wi-Fi and decided they didn’t like a particular customer? Under these laws they could have that person prosecuted if he accessed their open Wi-Fi network, despite not having done anything wrong. Recently the UK has announced they will attempt to practically outlaw all open or unsecured Wi-Fi networks with their Digital Economy Bill, making network owners equal to ISPs as well as being responsible for all content transmitted over their network and having to keep detailed logs and access records.
In the US at least it would appear to not be a federal crime. According to Title 18 (Crimes and criminal procedure) of the United States Code, Part I (Crimes), Chapter 119 (Wire and electronic communications interception and interception of oral communications) it is not illegal to access electronic communications readily accessible to the general public. Readily accessible to the general public is defined as not being encrypted and broadcast over public frequencies. However I have not seen or heard of any case coming under federal jurisdiction with most cases being handled by state legislation instead. In Texas and Florida the situation is similar to that of Canada and Australia, where the owner bears no responsibility for operating an unsecured Wi-Fi network and anyone accessing it without permission of the owner has committed an illegal act.
The state of New York has a saner approach in that owners bear the responsibility for protecting their networks, and unauthorized access occurs only when protections are intentionally bypassed. The proposed House Bill 495 for New Hampshire was interesting, being similar to the New York legislation in which the responsibility was placed on the owner for securing their network. Unfortunately however this bill was ultimately not passed.
In Germany there does not seem to be any issue with connecting to an unsecured Wi-Fi network as it is clear that an unsecured AP is open and available for anybody to use. Instead the law seems to target the owners who fail to secure their network in that they must bear responsibility and making them liable for certain actions. Out of all of the legislation and cases I have seen Germany and New York seem to have the most practical and rational laws. The UK seems to have the absolute worst laws, with people accessing an unsecured Wi-Fi network possibly facing heavy penalties as well as making the networks owners soon to be responsible for all contents transmitted over their network. This is disappointing, although not surprising given the direction the UK has been heading in the last few years.
What about operating an unsecured Wi-Fi network for defensive reasons, similar to how Bruce Schneier advocates? Many people are of the opinion that leaving their Wi-Fi network accessible will be a valid defense in the event they are accused of some illegal act. This issue however is quite complex, and depends both on the region you are in, and if it is a civil or criminal case.
In a criminal case the prosecution has a higher burden of proof and must show you to be guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, or the equivalent in countries other than the US. In a civil trial however the plaintiff only has to prove guilt on the Preponderance of the evidence (or equivalent). The RIAA for example has successfully prosecuted many people for filesharing based on nothing more than an IP address.
With some regions considering Wi-Fi owners to be liable for what is downloaded over their connection – such as the recent case in the UK where a pub owner was fined for a movie download, having an open Wi-FI network is no defense at all. In other regions network operators are not responsible for what other people do on the network, provided there is nothing incriminating on their computer or in their residence. In such a case a person may be successful in establishing the equivalent of reasonable doubt; however this is far from a sure thing.
An interesting parallel can be drawn between cordless phones and unsecured Wi-Fi networks. When cordless phones were introduced to the market there was no security, and it was easy for anyone within distance to eavesdrop on conversations. This actually went to court in the US with the judge ruling that since the owner was broadcasting over public airwaves there could be no expectation of privacy. Ten years later the situation has been completely reversed.
Rather than making it easy for innocent people to be prosecuted with vague and ambiguous “unauthorized access” legislation as a result of the ignorance and/or laziness of wireless network owners, I would much rather see some sort of computer trespassing law, putting the onus on the network owner to inform people they are not authorized.
Prosecuting people for connecting to an unsecured Wi-Fi for doing nothing more than checking their email or the news is wrong. It sets a dangerous precedent, shifting the responsibility of properly configuring their equipment onto the user who saw a Wi-Fi network advertised as available and connected accordingly.
Technically there should be no problem here as it is hardware and software working exactly as it was designed to do. Legally it can depend on your country and jurisdiction. Morally there is generally no issue as it has been established that most users decide to leave such networks open. While there may be some people who take unfair advantage of an unsecured wireless network, these people are the extreme, and are distinct from simple accessing the wireless network.
As noted while there are exceptions to the rule they are irrelevant to what should be the general attitude. Just as it is reasonable in society to assume it is reasonable to open a shop during business hours if the door is open, it is reasonable to assume an unprotected Wi-FI network is free to be used. Entering a shop with an open door that was actually closed should not result in being prosecuted for trespassing, just as connecting to an unsecured wireless network should not result in prosecution for theft.
It should be noted that my argument and opinion is limited to the English speaking countries and Europe. It would also apply in countries where the same AP manufactures have market dominance similar to those of the English speaking countries such as D-Link and Linksys. If there are countries where a local or niche brand is more popular, then that brand of AP may well not offer security as an explicit configuration step or enabled by default and so would be an additional exception to my argument.
Anecdotally it seems the same people who consider accessing an unsecured Wi-Fi network to be stealing are the same people with aging moral principles who don’t think the owners of a Wi-Fi network should bear any responsibility for their actions. That people should be free to setup their wireless network and anyone accessing it without permission is in the wrong. This view is incorrect for all the reasons outlined above, and yet it is unfortunately the view of the majority.
It is also worth mentioning that many APs allow for multiple SSID’s to be setup. What this means is that a secure network with encryption can be setup, as well as a deliberately unsecured network for guests to access. It is quite probably that a signficiant portion of unsecured Wi-Fi networks are deliberate making use of this functionality.
Update 1 – April 4th 2011
A Dutch court recently ruled that deliberately hacking into a WiFi AP is not a criminal offense, as they do not consider a router to be a computer. My understanding behind the courts logic is that since the router does not store personal information it should not be classed the same as a PC. Interesting, but I don’t really see how that is relevant. By intentionally breaking into a network, you now have direct access to other PC’s, can screw with the network and do all sorts of nefarious deeds. To be clear, it is still considered a civil offense so that the owners may seek damages and I would think that if the PC’s behind the network were attacked in some fashion it would be a criminal offense. It’s an interesting take and the more I think about it, the more sense it seems to make.
- http://blogs.computerworld.com/why_its_ok_to_steal_wi_fi A blog entry by Mike Egan, advocating the view that accessing unsecured Wi-Fi is not stealing.
- http://www.wired.com/politics/security/commentary/securitymatters/2008/01/securitymatters_0110 – Bruce Schneier advocating leaving Wi-Fi networks open for the good of society.
- http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/6960304.stm – A BBC commentary asking if stealing Wi-FI is wrong.
- http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,1565274,00.asp – John Dvorak advocating the view that the owner of a Wi-FI network should bear responsibility, not the people who access it.
- http://www.securityfocus.com/columnists/237 – An interesting SecurityFocus article on the subject of authorization in the context of unprotected Wi-Fi
- http://www.wi-fi.org/news_articles.php?f=media_news&news_id=1 A Wi-Fi Alliance survey from 2006, showing that 70% of Americans enable security on their wireless devices, and 83% consider stealing wrong.
- http://www.sophos.com/pressoffice/news/articles/2007/11/wi-fi.html – A sophos survey from 2007, showing 54% of people see nothing wrong with accessing unsecured Wi-FI connections. As with filesharing, when legislation makes an activity the majority of the population perform illegal, it’s time to change the law.
- http://www.ispreview.co.uk/story/2010/01/08/usa-home-to-more-open-wireless-wifi-broadband-hotspots-than-eu-and-uk.html – According to WeFi statistics, approximately 30% of WiFi AP’s in the world are unsecured. I wonder just how many were left unsecured intentionally?
- http://www.smh.com.au/nsw/revealed-keneallys-transport-blueprint-20100219-olzc.html – A newspaper hacks into a site by guessing the URL. Most people would consider the onus is on the site owner to protect their content since it is a public website. Why is this position reverse so often for Wi-Fi networks, when joining an unsecured network is significantly less effort than guessing a URL?
- http://www.oucs.ox.ac.uk/network/wireless/services/owl/vpn/xp_sp1/select2.png – Windows XP advising that a network is unsecured. You actually have to tick a box to acknowledge this and connect anyway.
- http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/news/2007/04/child-porn-case-shows-that-an-open-wifi-network-is-no-defense.ars – An Ars Technica article about a case where having an unsecured Wi-Fi network was no defense.
- http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2005/07/07/tech/main707361.shtml – Man arrested for stealing Wi-Fi in St. Petersburg Florida
- http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/news/2007/05/michigan-man-arrested-for-using-cafes-free-wifi-from-his-car.ars – Man arrested for using free Wi-Fi from a café in Michigan
- http://www.pcworld.com/article/136326/london_man_arrested_for_stealing_wifi.html – A man arrested in London for using an unsecured Wi-Fi network.
- http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/england/hereford/worcs/6565079.stm – Two people cautioned for accessing unsecured Wi-Fi networks.
- http://torrentfreak.com/victims-of-wifi-theft-not-responsible-for-illegal-uploads-080709/ – A German court ruling Wi-Fi network operators are not responsible for what other users do on their network.
- http://news.zdnet.co.uk/communications/0,1000000085,39909136,00.htm?tag=mncol;txt – A contrasting case in the U.K. where a pub was fined £8000 and found responsible for downloads guests made on its Wi-Fi network.
- http://news.zdnet.co.uk/communications/0,1000000085,40057470,00.htm?tag=mncol;txt – The UK is planning to outlaw open/unsecured Wi-Fi networks with its Digital Economy Bill.
- http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/cgi-bin/getcase.pl?court=6th&navby=case&no=950180p – A sixth circuit court ruling on the expectation of privacy for cordless phones
- http://www.lawtechjournal.com/articles/2009/01_091026_nowicki.pdf – A criticism of Michigans computer crime statute
- http://www.mcguirewoods.com/news-resources/publications/technology_business/roaming.pdf – An Article in the CRi journal, arguing that Wi-Fi roaming should be not be illegal
- http://www.wired.com/gadgets/wireless/news/2003/04/58651 – A Wired article on the proposed House Bill 495
- http://www.justice.gov/criminal/cybercrime/wiretap2510_2522.htm – Federal wiretap law from USDOJ
- http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/News_by_Industry/Trai_plans_to_prevent_WiFi_abuse/articleshow/3491302.cms – WiFi networks to be required to be protected in India, to prevent terrorists making use of them.
- http://mashable.com/2010/02/22/stolen-wifi-confusion/ – A woman calling in to Leo Laporte who had been using an unsecured wifi for over a year without realizing. Obviously ignore all of his nonsense about it being illegal and stealing.