Ethics and dangers of tapping into your neighbor's wireless net access.
June 19, 2004 10:08 AM   Subscribe

Ethics and dangers of tapping into your neighbor's wireless net access.

So I just got a wireless laptop and I know zilch about how all this works. When I turn it on in my apartment, it tells me there are nearly a dozen available networks I can access. Some seem to require some kind of password, several don't. I'm assuming these are networks my neighbors in nearby apartments are paying for. My questions are: is it ethical to leech off someone else's account? Will it affect their own surfing? (The second question has implications for the first, in my view.) Will they notice? Should I try to find the person whose access I'm using and offer to pay half their bill?
What security dangers am I opening myself up to? If I keep doing this, can I get away with just not using this computer to send banking passwords and the like, seeing as I don't really care if anyone reads my email. Can someone now access my computer, not just the stuff I send? Are there any programs I should be using to protect myself? (Oh, and if you could use teeny tiny words, that would be great - I'm clueless technologically. Part of the problem here is I don't even know how to go about getting my own wireless access.)
posted by CunningLinguist to Law & Government (51 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Would probably be a good idea to let your neighbour know. As long as you're ont doing much heavy downloading it shouldn't affect their performance much. Your banking passwords should still be safe if your bank uses SSL, etc. (it probably does, if there is that lock icon at the bottom of your browser when you are surfing then it's encrypted)

If your neighvour (or you) wanted to they could run a program to snoop on the wireless network traffic and see whatever is in plain text, IM conversations and web pages, etc.
posted by Space Coyote at 10:29 AM on June 19, 2004

I leave my wireless network open with my email address as the name of the network so users can contact me (thanks nicwolffe for that tip-- my network used to be named "I fucked your wife" just for the entertainment value).

Funny story: I usually password my router, but I had to reset it one day and forgot to reset the password, so it was just left at the default. I'm surfing along one day, and my connection just dies. I check my airport menu, and my network is gone, but there's a strong signal coming from a network named "Apt. 19C." So I'll figure out the problem in the morning and just use 19C for the time being.

It wasn't until I logged into a chat and my IP address popped up as my own that I realized that one of my neighbors had inadvertently hijacked my router as their own. I was "Apt. 19C." I slapped my password back on, renamed the network, and all was well.
posted by astruc at 10:40 AM on June 19, 2004

if i were you, i'd offer to contribute to the line cost of one of the owners of a locked hub with encryption and mac filtering turned on. that way it's fairer (although probably against their contract) and you're less likely to be snooped by someone else.

i've done this with a neighbour and it worked nicely.
posted by andrew cooke at 11:02 AM on June 19, 2004

is it ethical to leech off someone else's account?

You're using something someone else paid for without their permission. No.

This wouldn't count if the network name were CMON_IN or some other clear invitation.

Will it affect their own surfing?

During big downloads, maybe?

Will they notice?

Probably, if they're using a router and are at all savvy. It will be real damn obvious when their wireless activity light is going blinkity-blink-blink while their laptop is off.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:10 AM on June 19, 2004

Is it ethical? Turn it around and imagine how you'd feel about the neighbour who used your non-secured wireless connection. If you don't like what you'd feel about them, don't make yourself that person.

Extra brownie points if you let everyone who's running unsecured access know what they're doing, and how to fix it. And what Andrew said.
posted by Blue Stone at 11:27 AM on June 19, 2004

Jesus, you people are freaks. This has come up several times in the past on Ask MetaFilter and I don't understand why people feel so strongly about borrowing a free connection.

Here's the gist of it: most people leave their networks open on purpose. You should feel no reget using their line because unless you're hogging the line downloading gigs of illegal stuff, you won't degrade the connection or cause any harm. Even if they accidentally left it open, you're not going to block them from getting email if you're reading email and surfing around. My broadband line is like a firehose always spraying water, even though my email and web surfing requires just a small fraction of the available bandwidth. Sure from time to time I download large files and use it all up, but during the other 23 hours of the day the thing is barely used. These are digital bits, and if I download a file and you download a file, you don't owe me money for your file downloaded on my line.

If you want another analogy how about this: I moved into a house last year and spent a couple thousand dollars fixing it up out front and doing my own landscaping. I put in a tree that cost a couple hundred bucks. grew a lawn and have planted oodles of bushes, flowers, and plants.

I don't mind if my neighbors come over and enjoy it with me. I welcome anyone driving by to look at it and enjoy the flowers and shade. It makes my neighborhood better by sharing it. Even though it cost me money and hundreds of hours of hard labor, they're enjoying the benefits for free and I don't mind.

I also keep an open wireless point with my address as the name of the base station (with "free open" also in the title). No one has come by so far, and looking at logs, it appears a few people have used it and I think that's just fantastic. I'm doing what I can to make my section of the neighborhood nice, and I don't mind if others benefit from that. I pay for it because I want to, and unless there are so many people abusing the free community service I provide and hogging the connection, it doesn't negatively affect my experience and I don't care if people use it.

When I'm in San Francisco and New York, I frequently pop onto whatever random open network is around and I check my email (protected by a vpn of course). If someone's staying with me or my neighbors and does the same, terrific, that's the point of sharing.
posted by mathowie at 11:30 AM on June 19, 2004

Response by poster: imagine how you'd feel about the neighbour who used your non-secured wireless connection.

If it didn't affect my own access, I honestly wouldn't give a damn. That's why I asked if I would be impeding them in some way.

(on preview, Matt answered that question, thanks)
posted by CunningLinguist at 11:32 AM on June 19, 2004

I see a problem because I'm sitting here paying $60/month for broadband access and using a wireless router for my laptop. Is it really fair that a neighbor gets the same exact service as me for me, via using my bandwidth? Also, not everyone has the firehose of a connection. Charter Communication down here sucks and never get a good connection. Here, pirating my router would no doubt affect my connection.
Also, I think we sometimes assume everyone is tech savvy. Most of the Internet users don't know the first thing about modifying their wireless connection. Just pop on Windows XP and you got a connection. Hell, I've known people using Windows XP and acdidently connected to a wireless router that wasn't theirs.
posted by jmd82 at 11:50 AM on June 19, 2004

Here's a follow-up: how do you leave it open for all to access while keeping all your own stuff safe? Is it only a matter of securing the individual computers? Can incidental users gain the ability to see the traffic moving in and out of the network?
posted by thebigpoop at 11:51 AM on June 19, 2004

I would say that mathowie has provided the correct moral compass of the day. It's impressive to consider the resounding social influence a man might have just by creating a terrifically brilliant website with tens of thousands of members and then expressing his opinion.
posted by Jonasio at 11:54 AM on June 19, 2004

nope. i think matt's wrong. i think my answer makes more sense.

i'm not fixing the deal at 50/50, but if you're living next door and using the access it seems decent to offer to pay something for it (is it free in the usa? here it's expensive to have cable access). people aren't as clued up as matt and i doubt they all share the same politics as someone involved in setting up the cc movement. in other words: he's biased and inconsiderate.

resounding social influence my arse. remove tongue. engage brain.
posted by andrew cooke at 12:14 PM on June 19, 2004

I see a problem because I'm sitting here paying $60/month for broadband access and using a wireless router for my laptop. Is it really fair that a neighbor gets the same exact service as me for me, via using my bandwidth?

Of course it's fair. Rule of thumb: If you don't want people using your wireless router, make it so other people can't use you're wireless router. If you're distributing the name and don't have a password set, then, well, you obviously want people to partake. You seem to think it's like robbing a house with an unlocked door. But it's more like distributing fliers to every door in your neighborhood about an open house party with a free keg.
posted by jbrjake at 12:20 PM on June 19, 2004

Casual use of open connections is fair game. If you want to use their wireless access point as your ISP, it would seem fair to offer to help pay for it. One "friend of mine" gets 1/3 of her broadband bill paid for by the downstairs neighbors.
posted by theora55 at 12:24 PM on June 19, 2004

While Matt's logic and behavior are noble, they don't consider the "fairness" aspect, per se. Yes, if you leave the network unprotected, it's your own damn fault if people are mooching. I agree with that part. But "sharing your wealth" with neighbors when you've worked damn hard to earn that $40-60/month is a difficult ideal to practice, especially for the lower to middle income folks who'd rather spend the money someplace else.

The practice closely resembles smokers' behavior, actually. You buy a pack of smokes, light up, and inevitably there's a guy who wants one for free. Sure, every so often you hand out a free cigarette, but just imagine if the same guy asked for a smoke, three times a day, for the next month. Suddenly you aren't feeling so generous anymore.
posted by BlueTrain at 12:31 PM on June 19, 2004

I think a lot of it depends on if this is a one time, happen to be in your neighborhood type thing or your permanent everyday ISP.

If someone's grandma lives downstairs from me, and her grandson comes over with his laptop and she has no internet access, by all means use mine. But if you live next to me and decide you're just not going to pay for internet and use mine as much or more than me, I dunno. I feel like you're abusing the system.

If your network is called something like FreeNetwork or something then of course that's different, but I would assume most people with their default network names and open networks aren't consciously giving you a free ride. Although I would still argue checking your email and browsing on those networks is ok as long as you're not using it as your permanent ISP.
posted by rhyax at 12:52 PM on June 19, 2004

On the ethical issue, I'm going with Matt. The nature of WiFi is one of openess. I don't mean that in the happy-hippy-everything-is-free sort of way, I mean that out of the box, routers tend to broadcast well beyond the house or apartment they are meant to cover. Owners have two options, close the system with passwords, etc, or leave it open. If they leave it open, why not use it? It's like saying you shouldn't listen to a particular radio station because you've never bought anything that they advertise.

That said, BlueTrain's analogy doesn't hold up - internet access isn't a finite resource like a pack of cigarettes. If someone uses your connection three times a day, you still have internet access. Apples? Meet Oranges.

So on the technical front: how do you determine where the signal you are using is coming from? If someone is so racked with guilt that they want to somehow contact their "host" is the router isn't named anything easily attached to a source?

On preview: What difference is there in using the signal daily or every now and then? If there is signal, then why not just use it? How do you know that the system is meant to be private, or is part of a business that wishes the node to be open (eg, coffeeshops and bars) I think if it's okay to use the tap every now and then, it is okay to use it regularly.
posted by elwoodwiles at 1:03 PM on June 19, 2004

elwood vs the english language, part 16:

How does someone contact the owner of a wireless network if it isn't named in such a way to identify a source?
posted by elwoodwiles at 1:06 PM on June 19, 2004

I've secured my wireless, right down to admitting only my WiFi card's MAC address, because I don't care for the consequences should someone be using my network to do something illegal. I'd really hate to be the fall guy for some kiddy porn thing. Eeek.
posted by five fresh fish at 1:08 PM on June 19, 2004

well, i wouldn't be mad if someone used it regularly, but I myself wouldn't because I would feel as if I am taking and not giving back.

If I run an open network at home, and go on a trip and use other networks i find, that would be ok to me, because we (in the sense of all wireless users) are sharing. But if all i do is use other people's networks I personally would feel like a leech on that semi-community and I would not want to do that.
posted by rhyax at 1:09 PM on June 19, 2004

internet access isn't a finite resource like a pack of cigarettes.

It's an owned commodity. It may not be finite, but the access is paid for and is considered real property. The internet isn't owned by anyone, but the access to it is. That's why the analogy holds up (although now it's much weaker than before; perhaps electricity or water are better resources to use for the analogy).
posted by BlueTrain at 1:17 PM on June 19, 2004

All right. It's Saturday afternoon, a beautiful day, and apparently I can't create a coherent analogy (electricity and water are also finite). Screw it. I'm going outside.
posted by BlueTrain at 1:24 PM on June 19, 2004

rhyax, I understand, but the very form of the "semi-community" makes it difficult to pay, or do favors for, the person hosting the connection. How does one go about both using a connection and somehow benefiting the host, but doesn't know where the signal is coming from? And even if one could isolate the source, wouldn't it be creepy to knock on their door and say "Hi! I've been leaching of your network!"

fff, I've had similar concerns. I wonder how long that is either used as a defense or there is some legal question brought to bear in terms of illegal uses of other people's open lines. Could open connections themselves be in violation of some laws or terms of user contracts?

BlueTrain, Yeah, I'd say comparing access to a utility is a stronger analogy, but still doesn't get all the way up the mountain. In the case of water or power, someone is paying a fee based on how much of the utility is being used, but the internet is usually a flat fee, no matter how much time is spent using the connection. The nature of internet access and the nature of radio (which is essentally all WiFi is) are different enough from other resources that arguments through analogy may be difficult.
posted by elwoodwiles at 1:25 PM on June 19, 2004

I don't know how you could possibly know that someone left their wireless link open on purpose unless it's clearly labeled that way. Assuming that a network named Home Network or whatever the windows default is was left open intentionally for everyone's use seems like deep wishful thinking to me.

This seems a matter of basic courtesy. It's something that is not yours. Ergo, unless you're invited, don't use it. The link being left unsecured is no more an invitation than an unlocked door is an invitation to sit down to supper.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 1:30 PM on June 19, 2004

If you're doing something "rude" but no one can tell that you're doing something "rude" are you really doing anything "rude"? If a network is open and no one is affected by other people using it, is there really an issue?

I don't mean to argue, and as BlueTrain rightly pointed out, it is a beautiful Saturday, but issues like these are of great interest to me. We live in an age where technology is pushing ethics into new and different forms. It's just interesting how the concepts of property, resource and even courtesy are being evolved by developing technology.

*takes walk, enjoys the shade of other people's trees*
posted by elwoodwiles at 1:41 PM on June 19, 2004

Just remember how protective a lot of computer nerds are of their perceived territory. EWver ask to check your email on a geek's computer? They'll watch you like a hawk to make sure that's all you do. Start thumbing through their winamp playlist and you'll have transgressed and will likely receive a cold stare. And don't even think of beating their best Minesweeper time.

It's these types who are offended by the idea of someone else using their wireless network. Normal people don't care a wit. Everyone I know who has wireless loves it when other people can use it too, it's the added convenience that they paid for being put to use.
posted by Space Coyote at 1:45 PM on June 19, 2004

"I'd really hate to be the fall guy for some kiddy porn thing. Eeek."

Or find yourself on the end of an RIAA lawsuit.

No, thanks.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 2:02 PM on June 19, 2004

Randy Cohen's "Ethicist" column.
posted by vito90 at 2:14 PM on June 19, 2004

Here's the gist of it: most people leave their networks open on purpose.

It all hinges on this statement.

Either people are ignorant, indifferent, or benevolent when it comes to WiFi access. In the latter two cases, jumping on their network is fine. In the first case, it's not.

That's how I see it.
posted by tss at 2:29 PM on June 19, 2004

This situation seems to bear some parallels with a situation in electricity network regulation known as the 'first comer' problem. Essentially, in systems where a generator has to bear all the costs of connecting to the network they can pay quite a lot if considerable reinforcement/extension is required. If a second generator comes along in a location close to the first, their connection costs are much lower as the first comer has already met the extension costs. The second comer has effectively gained an economic advantage over the first comer. 'Good' regulation will attempt to correct for this advantage and to spread costs out but its not easy to do so. Of course here you have no compulsion towards equalising the cost disadvantage, though personally I would suggest that the world would be a nicer place if people who expand its capabilities are assisted in burden sharing rather than exploited.
posted by biffa at 2:33 PM on June 19, 2004 [1 favorite]

This seems a matter of basic courtesy. It's something that is not yours. Ergo, unless you're invited, don't use it.

So is that how you feel about the light spilling out of your windows to? Do you put up black-out curtains to make sure none of it escapes where somebody might use it to see their way, or do you just think of the people who are using your light instead of a flashlight as discourteous thieves?
posted by willnot at 2:39 PM on June 19, 2004

Part of the problem here is I don't even know how to go about getting my own wireless access.

You need internet access of course, and to aquire and configure a wireless router. If you're a Mac user, the simplest (though not the cheapest) way to go is the Apple airport. Perhaps others will have recommendations for other devices.

Once you get this set up you can make your own decision about sharing with your neighbours.
posted by timeistight at 2:53 PM on June 19, 2004

It really is different using a stranger's (or for that matter a neighbour's) open access to check your e-mail and a bit of news or something, once in a while, and using a neighbour's connection as your permanent ISP-substitute.
posted by Blue Stone at 3:08 PM on June 19, 2004

So is that how you feel about the light spilling out of your windows too?

Well, there's a weird analogy. I'd certainly be discomfited if someone were habitually camping on my back porch to read a book, or masturbate to the latest issue of Nuns and Nazis, by the light of my sliding-glass door.

I keep my wireless router MAC-locked and 128-bit WEP'd because I have a fair number of shares on the local network so I can do work on my desktop from my laptop. I don't want some jackass with a wifi card deleting all my papers in progress or wiping out data, nor do I want random people downloading stuff that can be traced to my ip.

If a network is open and no one is affected by other people using it, is there really an issue?

Of course, just as it would be an issue if you wandered into a stranger's open garage and borrowed a shovel for an hour late at night when you knew they wouldn't be using it anyway. You're using someone else's stuff without their consent, and absent pressing need. Obviously that doesn't apply to nodes that are labeled in such a way as to imply consent to use by strangers.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 3:22 PM on June 19, 2004

It may not be finite, but the access is paid for and is considered real property.

Property, yes. Real property, no.
posted by anathema at 3:41 PM on June 19, 2004

ROU: But since the signal is reaching his house, it's kind of like you leaving your shovel leaning against his wall and then taking offence when he uses it to clear his teps one morning.
posted by Space Coyote at 3:45 PM on June 19, 2004

The ethics of this break down into a few happy little ethics nuggets:

If you don't want people to borrow your network occasionally, you don't leave it wide open. This is how a passerby will determine if you are willing to share.

If you borrow access to a stranger's network, you must do so mindful of the fact that you may not be an invited guest. There are a lot of idiots who plug in their cheapo Linksys and never even look at the settings.

If you make WAP hardware, you must seriously reconsider your default configuration.

If you camp out on a stranger's network, you're probably a mooch and quite possibly a thief. Consider that someone else is paying the bills.

Unfortunately, none of this leads to a nice clean expert system that can tell you exactly where you stand. Life isn't always black and white.
posted by majick at 4:01 PM on June 19, 2004

Owners have two options, close the system with passwords, etc, or leave it open. If they leave it open, why not use it? It's like saying you shouldn't listen to a particular radio station because you've never bought anything that they advertise.

Where I live, if people have open routers, it's more likely that they don't even know they're open, which changes the equation slightly. We had a nice chitchat with a neighbor who had just gotten her wireless set up by a friend and she was going on and on about how great it was and how it was so cute that her friend named her access point "quarry" which is sort of cute, except that's the name of our router. Hers was called Linksys, natch. We're happy with people using our access point for occasional use, but this gals' WinXP box selected our router as the strongest signal and latched on to it and she had no idea she was using it as her "main axe." So, we explained it all, password protected our router, and left it at that. But she had no idea, none, what was happening. I'm with andrew on this one, if you're in a region where Wi-Fi is more of a rare commodity [I'm pretty sure we were one of the only hotspots within ten miles] it seems appropriate to offer to chip in if you want to use it as a regular connection. If you're in the middle of some gigantic city and you just want to check your email, I've never had a problem just hopping on an available network.

Right now, while bandwidth is pretty easily and cheaply available and mobile nerds with laptops and connectivity needs are few[er] it's a no-brainer. I just envision a future -- and someone stop me if this is nuttiness -- where the sheer numbers of people looking for free Wi-Fi access will overwhelm the available bandwidth and people will need to keep personal access points locked down just so they have some bandwidth available for themselves. Is this wacko, or a possible tragedy of the commons in the making?
posted by jessamyn at 4:10 PM on June 19, 2004

Here's the gist of it: most people leave their networks open on purpose.
I'm pretty sure that's bullshit. Most people aren't that savvy when it comes to all things computers, that's probably a bigger reason for connections being left open. I would feel the same way about people tapping into my wireless network about how I would feel about them wandering in and using my loo. I mean, the effect is the same, both are things I've already paid for and probably won't be using at the time, but it's my stuff and I'd feel abused. I absolutley don't think it is ethical to take advantage of someone not taking adequate steps to secure their network.
If you are openly offering the wireless network out of the goodness of your heart that's fine, but unless you know for definate that the wireless access is open for your benefit, don't be a ponce and get your own wireless connection.
posted by chill at 4:23 PM on June 19, 2004

I don't understand why people feel so strongly about borrowing a free connection.

It feels like someone watching my TV through my window. They're not limiting my use of the tv. They're not harming my tv. But it's still creepy, because they're invading something that I think of as private (and use as a private thing; ie, run shares) even if I didn't take every possible step to prevent people from doing so. And while most people might in fact harmlessly watch my tv through my window, I have no way to know whether someone is watching my TV or watching me, and I have no reason to presume their good will in the matter. Especially given that tv's and cable connections are well within the means of most people.

Obviously it would be different if I had my tv sitting right at my window, pointing out, and habitually watched it from my front yard with a sign in the yard saying "WATCH IF YOU WANT," as you've done with your wireless.

But you wouldn't presume that I'm okay with you watching tv through my window just because you happen to be able to peek in and I haven't intentionally blocked your view, and you shouldn't assume people's consent to tap their wireless unless it's clearly given.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 4:46 PM on June 19, 2004

I just jumped on the wireless bandwagon. Right now I'm secured but once I figure out a few things on how to control other peoples bandwidth usage I won't be. This is more or less how the net used to be. It's built on free software and open specifications for the most part. Those who had bandwidth to spare often shared it unless or until it became a problem. Many popular projects started their life on university supplied resources or employer provided web space.

If somebody tries to use my wireless to host a slashdot clone I'll do my best to find out who's doing it and chew them out - or disable them by MAC address. If somebody can use a little bit of my bandwidth to read email when it's convenient to them or access mapquest to get them to wherever they're trying to go I'm happy to assist.

I'll try to make it clear that I'm making it available for sharing (and the network name is a good way I think). But since your radio waves are extending past the confines of your property then they should be fair game. If you personally have a problem with it then secure your network. (I think wireless networks should come by default secured but I noticed that my linksys didn't)

(hrm, and spell check is not working very well)
posted by substrate at 5:00 PM on June 19, 2004

I have a hackz0r friend (no, friend isn't euphemism for myself, in this case) who just *loves* finding free access wireless connections upon which he can do his deeds in untraceable manner. I believe it is a common tactic to drive around looking for unpassworded wireless to use for your exploits. So while sharing is nice, I personally keep my router sealed tight as per said friend's suggestion.

That doesn't answer the question, but uh, ROU and some others said it nicely. Just because it's there doesn't mean that you should use it. I'm pretty sure it's not a matter of "the radio waves extend past your property so boohoo on you!" Not everyone who buys a wireless router is automatically signing up to provide free service to anyone who can access it. If I'm paying for it, I have every right to choose to be selfish and keep it to myself.

So no, it's not ethical. Either have the courage to let them know--as they may just not be very saavy like some of us folks who are online all the freakin' time and know everything there is to know about computers--and inquire about whether or not they're okay with you using it (it's theirs, not yours) or use it and know that you're not being ethical. Because, I mean, hey, free connection. Not even sure if I could pass that up.
posted by precocious at 5:28 PM on June 19, 2004

I'm with the open network folks on this one. My setup is such that my wireless is open to anyone who wants to park on my corner and use it, and anything I don't want people to see is behind a firewall, or secured in some way. I host servers and provide services, and use the webernets pretty constantly on a daily basis, and I'm nowhere near pushing the limits of my connection. If somebody can make use of my surplus and not infringe on my ability to use my own stuff, why should I care? Sure, if someone is abusing my generosity in some way, off they go, but I've never had that problem, so what's the big deal? And if you come across another open connection, and need to use it, what's the big deal? (As for the argument that people don't know that they need to secure their connections, or can't be bothered to learn the bare basics of the technology they use... well...)

As long as use does not become abuse, I say go for it.
posted by majcher at 5:57 PM on June 19, 2004

elwoodwiles: yea, i'm not saying you should do something for them individually, but your act of having an open port at home is doing something for the community in general. And so when you connect somewhere else you're not a leech on the community.

I would not want someone coming to my door and offering to do something nice for me for having the network.

I think the shade/tree analogy is actually quite good. It's not expendable, but only so many people can use it at once, and it did cost some to plant it and maintain, although you will do this regardless of how many people relax under it. If someone taking a "walk" wants to take a break under my "tree" then they can, i leave my network open for them. But I would not want to be the only person on the street who plants no trees and doesn't mow their lawn, and sits around in my neighbor's yard all day.
posted by rhyax at 5:58 PM on June 19, 2004

(Also, I call Godwin on this thread!)
posted by majcher at 6:03 PM on June 19, 2004

Best answer: The idea of using somebody's restroom or peaking through somebody's windows creates a situation where somebody has to intrude on your private space, but that's not what's happening with WiFi.

It's more like if in my own home, I suddenly have a restroom or my TV suddenly starts getting a pictures simply because you've enabled those services in your home.

Again I think the light spilling out of your windows is the better analogy, and while somebody upthread was creeped out by the thought of somebody camped out on their deck, that's again somebody intruding on your space. What about two windows that face each other across an alley? If my neighbor always has his lights turned on so brightly that my room is always lit, and I don't ever need to turn on a light, are you really creeped out by the fact that I don't turn on my own light? Do you really think I should go knock on my neighbors door and offer to pay half their electric bill?

The fact that I could be a peeping tom and look into the neighbors room, and the fact that the neighbor might not realize he has left his apartment open to that kind of thing is entirely separate from me taking advantage of the light to not hit my knee on my coffee table when I move around at night.
posted by willnot at 6:07 PM on June 19, 2004

I second Matt's comments. Well said, Matt.

My wireless node is open and named in such a manner as to indicate it's openness. However, my signal doesn't really reach the road unless you're using a high-gain directional antennae.

I leave the node open and unlocked for the usefullness of it. If someone comes over and I'm not here - unlikely, but possible - they wouldn't be able to use the network without resetting the firmware. Knowing my friends and family, they'd probably try to do just that, and I can't blame them at all.

More than once I've been waiting for a certain friend to show up - Hi Bernie! - and he has hopped on the network to IM me from either his powerbook or PDA, 'cause he knows it's easier to reach me by IM then phone. "Where are you?" "In your driveway, dork!" "Oh, duh! Be right out!"

I think when it comes to WiFi, we're dealing with a new kind of ethicality. You can't really compare something that flows like water, is easily shared, and is only useless when saturated or dead. The smoke-bumming mooch analogy doesn't really apply, as the average user isn't going to saturate an aDSL pipe checking their email or grabbing a map or something.

However, if you go the open route I strongly recommend watching your access logs and firewalling the open router from the rest of the network.

Personally, I have open windows/samba shares on multiple machines that could be accessed easily by anyone on the node, but this doesn't really bother me. If you're on my LAN, chances are really, really good you're physically visible to me, at which point I'll say hello or something.

I like finding nodes that have contact info and dropping them a note, saying "Hey, thanks! I grabbed some info and a map while I was on your node and it saved me a bunch of time" or whatever.

Sometimes I find open shares on nodes and leave presents, like unusual or interesting photos, pics from the Burning Man galleries, photoshops, etc. Nothing distasteful, NSFW or illegal, but always something unique, creative, or interesting. (Is this ethical? Hell no. Is it amusing? Hell yes. I can only hope it was as amusing for them as it was for me. :) )

My view is that it is the responsibility of the access point owner to educate themselves and lock it down if they don't want it open. However, it is equally our responsibility to share that information, so kudos if you have the time and/or patience to educate people when you find open nodes.

I really don't think most people care as long as you're not malicious or destructive or doing illegal things from their network. "Hi, did you know your wireless network is open?" "It is? Is that bad?" "Well, it's less secure." "Did you break something or saturate my pipe or mess with my stuff or download kiddie porn?" "No." "Oh, well then. Whatever... wanna beer? We're watching the game."

So, ask if you can. Offer gifts, tech skills, cookies. If you just need to borrow someone's connection for a moment and you're not an unrelenting fucktard, have at it. It seems the ethicality of WiFi nodes comes down to intent.

Are you connecting to the node to be a cowardly script kiddie who can't afford a decent proxy for your packets or are you just trying to grab some info or spend some time surfing the web to kill some time and get your fix or what?

And finally, I find it interesting the philosophical differences between the "open" and "closed" node camps. Those in the open camp seem to be striving for an ad-hoc peer-to-peer and/or grid networks not unlike what folks have been building in the SF/Bay Area and Portland and the like for some time now. If we had enough nodes with enough radio footprint saturation, it's not inconcievable to imagine continent-sized free network where you could not only get net access but you could use things like smartphones or SIPP phones in place of cellular phones for free or cheap.

Vaporware? For now, but there's stinkier vaporware out there.
posted by loquacious at 6:29 PM on June 19, 2004

I just got back from a great day at the beach, and wanted to clear up some issues still lingering.

Legally, running an open wireless point puts you on the same level as Earthlink and AOL, legally speaking (except without the highly paid staff attorneys). Your wireless point falls under ISP safe harbor conditions that every ISP has fought in courts for, for the past ten years. They paved the way so that what goes on within your network isn't your fault as a bandwidth provider, it's the fault of the user that did harm. Of course, wireless users can be anonymous, but I'm sure if a casino theft viagra kiddie porn ring was traced to your IP, you could show logs that you didn't do it.

I'm with willnot on the wireless is not property and not anything like real property, though if I lived somewhere where I could sponge off my neighbor full-time, I would indeed feel guilty and get my own line (all my friends in NYC have 3-4 open networks within range and all end up getting their own lines while enjoying the free bandwidth until the installer arrives). I treat my wireless like a public resource, and just like a real life property resource like say, if I had a trampoline that any neighborhood kids could play on, once something is abused, I'll likely take it away. If my 3Mbps $50 cable line is atrociously slow, I'll snoop around and cut off anyone hogging the pipe, but until that happens everyone is welcome to use it.

When I said open wireless points are likely kept that way on purpose, I'm saying that after setting up both an airport base and a linksys base, and I recall that while both were open out of the box, the quickstart guides strongly suggested folks add WEP and walked you through the process on the initial setup. If you still have an open point, I'm betting you skipped steps 6-8 on your quickstart guide and know that you left it open.

Anyway, I strongly suggest using a VPN to secure your internet communication on your network and to keep it open and free for others to enjoy. But like others said, I'm a community minded guy and maybe that's just me, but I think most people are fine and good and won't abuse it. When/if they do, I'll do something about it.
posted by mathowie at 7:38 PM on June 19, 2004

My view is that it is the responsibility of the access point owner to educate themselves and lock it down if they don't want it open.

And my view is that it's the responsibility of the would-be user not to use nodes that don't clearly declare themselves to be open. If they want you using their wireless, they can make it clear. A polite person would not assume someone else's consent to anything simply because it makes their day a little more convenient.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:44 PM on June 19, 2004

Because of this thread I ust opened up my wireless network and changed the name to an invitation and my email address.
posted by Space Coyote at 7:57 PM on June 19, 2004

Response by poster: I'm back and full of mojitos and I have to thank all you guys for the insights and opinion.
What I would really like to do is find the person whose line I'm using right now to offer to pay half the bill, but I have no idea how, apart from posting a flier in the lobby, which would just freak everyone out.

I wish I lived next door to space coyote.
posted by CunningLinguist at 10:14 PM on June 19, 2004

I rarely need to turn on my heat in the winter because the bleed-through from the central heat (which outlets in the rest of the house, and is paid for by the other tenants, but doesn't outlet in my apartment and isn't on my power bill) keeps my apartment warm enought most of the time. Should I offer to pitch in on my fellow tenants' bills?
posted by IshmaelGraves at 6:25 AM on June 20, 2004

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