Slashdot is powered by your submissions, so send in your scoop


Forgot your password?
Wireless Networking Hardware

The Ethics of Stealing Wireless Bandwidth? 145

sjwoo asks: "So I was over at a friend's apartment yesterday, in an attempt to fix up her computer (goodbye, buggy Windows ME, hello somewhat less buggy Windows XP). I had most of the updates already on CD, so the only one that caused me grief was a new driver for her HP printer, which was 22MB. Her Internet connectivity was provided by AOL dialup, and because we had to be in class, I had to do what I could to hurry things along. I found an unprotected (i.e., no WEP, no MAC-address protection) WLAN and sucked down that file at over 200Kb/sec. Was I wrong to steal?"

"At home over my cable modem, downloading this file would have taken a couple of eyeblinks, but as I clicked on the download over her AOL connection, I saw that the ETA turned from 45 minutes to 68 minutes to 94 minutes! I had less than 10 minutes, so I did what a few of you might do: I turned on my wireless laptop and looked around the apartment building in search of a connection.

Later, I considered the ethical aspects of my action. I kinda felt a little guilty for tapping into this guy's connection. Surely it's possible that he wanted to have an open network to provide strangers in brief need of broadband connectivity, but most likely, he's just some person who doesn't quite know what he's doing."

This discussion has been archived. No new comments can be posted.

The Ethics of Stealing Wireless Bandwidth?

Comments Filter:
  • Leaving a WiFi network wide open without any security precautions or leaving it at the manufacturer's default is like leaving all of your doors and windows open and unlocked. Probably would have been better if you had asked the person if it was okay to borrow their network (like if you needed to borrow one's phone to call a tow truck).

    That's just my thought...
    • 'Your honor, the access point was just ASKING for it.. It was sittin' there with no WEP on, just sashaying packets back and forth..'

      Yeah. That sounds ethical.

      • Well, frankly I don't believe he was doing anything wrong to the owner of the service, i.e. He's not pressing charges and its more than likely that it did not disrupt him in any ways or render his service unusable. But the poster may have violated the service agreement that the unintentional host agreed to, and that would be wrong.
    • Here we go again with the pathetic locks/doors analogy. So, going by your post, the next time you leave your doors or windows open I, or anyone else, is free to use your home as they please?

      Some how, I think you would have a real issue if I were to take over your place for an afternoon.

      Hmm, what's this in the fridge? Oops, didn't mean to spill that on your carpet, awe screw it. You know, I prefer the sofa over here. Hey, nice disco shirt! I'll just borrow it for a while. Oooh!!! Killer laptop, I guess if
      • I'm not saying that it's okay... but rather it would be close to waltzing into an unlocked home and using their TV or the phone, or just taking stuff. I know, it's an overused and a bad analogy... but it was the only thing I could think of as a point of discussion.
      • Here's a better anaolgy...

        I assume that in your 'neck of the woods' that it's typically flat-rate net access (e.g. not by per Mb). I would suggest it's more like 'oh dear, my frisbee has fallen into your garden. You're not around/not going to possibly notice me- but if you do, sure I'll back off. So I pop in, 'trespassing on private grounds', pick it up, & out'
        - no harm, no one (probably) loses out - all is happy. ....well, it's better/more altruistic than the 'locked doors' analogy.

        & yes, if yo
        • & yes. I'm currently pissed as a fart, updating databases in thr office, its 5am , wanna play cs & currently think my opinion's better than anyone elses.

    • I don't believe its the equivelent of leaving your doors and windows open -- its the equivelent of putting a sign up saying 'Hey Use My Restroom If You Need To...And Then Get Out".

      I personally don't see anything wrong with this...I have 512k DSL and no bandwidth cap (I explained to the guys threatening to cap it that the reason I have 512 over the 198k was that I needed business class DSL). I run a wireless line unsecured -- I actually VPN my powerbook and my I don't have to worry. Anyone that wa
      • While you may protect your data with your VPN, and it's nice to have a little drive-up internet access for your friends, I wouldn't say that personal data is my main concern, given those things are in place.

        Think about what could be outgoing instead of incoming, and what that could mean to you, the owner of that IP address, and ultimately the responsible party for the traffic originating from it. Someone drives up, pauses for a little while, and:

        1. Sends spam from your IP
        2. Hacks something from your IP
        • Re:Dunno.... (Score:3, Insightful)

          by clifyt ( 11768 )
          The same thing could be said of a pay phone...or going to a REAL airport as these things are becoming popular diversions while waiting on a plane (while flying late last year, I pulled out the iBook only to see 2 seperate networks available that I could access my email for free).

          The point is that we shouldn't have to worry about every little probably that can arrise by criminals. Should I install bulletproof glass on all my windows? If I don't, am I liable for anyone in my house that gets shot in a drive
          • On the whole, I agree with you. The abundance of anonymous places that offer wireless is rising. If I were hacking via wireless, I'd want to be in a public place, as it is less suspecious.

            I wasn't arguing an analogy (ie. bulletproof glass, etc) or comparing computer crime to meat-space crime. I'm stating one of the reasons why I don't run a wide open web, and I think that the risks are legitimate, although not widespread. I trust most of my friends who use wireless, and they could have a node on my net
    • Who to ask and how? There should be a standard so that you can easily find out whose network you are using. So in the absence of a "yes you can" polite people won't use it.

      e.g. http://here/ or https://here/ or something like that, and you'd see the main webpage for the network you're on. With stuff like Terms of Usage, login page, chat, list of other users on line, other devices you can use (jukebox, airconditioner etc).

      The here TLD could be resolved locally by a dns server for that site. If it's globally
      • Who to ask and how? There should be a standard so that you can easily find out whose network you are using. So in the absence of a "yes you can" polite people won't use it.
        There is, and it's built in. It's called "don't have the password, don't have access".
        • You're talking about something else. Would be good if you actually read the original problem and my suggestion.

          This is about networks which don't require passwords for access - unlocked/open/unprotected.

          If a network is unlocked/unprotected how do we know whether someone is being generous or being ignorant?

          If something similar to what I suggest becomes common/standard then one can easily check if a network has been explicitly made open for public use and what the terms are, and whether there are other int
          • If a network is unlocked/unprotected how do we know whether someone is being generous or being ignorant?

            That's their business. If they don't take the trivial step of setting a password (which is clearly recommended in even the most dumbed-down wireless kits I have seen) why should I assume that their policy is anything different than what they've deliberately implemented technologically.

            If something similar to what I suggest becomes common/standard then one can easily check if a network has been explicit

            • I note that your idea isn't likely to be implemented be the technological ignoramuses of the world, either.

              I think that's his point... if the files are there, I can see what the owner of the network is OK with me doing. If the files aren't there, odds are that the network wasn't intended to be open.

            • Yes it's their business but for us it's not always nice to take advantage of the ignorant or stupid.

              The ignoramuses will still risk having their networks being exploited. BUT nice people can keep their conscience clear AND still get to use open networks that are explicitly made open.

              Right now, if you don't want to be rude, it's hard to use any open network without foreknowledge that it's OK.

              Physical logos are helpful, but you could still be on the WRONG open network. While DNS caching makes my suggestion
  • The only way that I could see this as being "wrong" is if this guy was paying for his bandwidth usasge. Then again its kind of what con artists say about exploiting those too ignorant to know better. You also helped out a friend, I'm sure that balanced out your karma a bit : P
    • And getting this story posted helped his karma even more! Heck, he's probably in the black now!
    • Actually I would say a better question is 'what are the odds of me getting caught?' And the answer is 'very slim.'

      In my 'hood someone had their Linksys WiFi (I will get around to explaining how I knew in a minute) up without WEP enabled, just plugged it in and let it go ... I found it when a friend of mine was at my place, looking for a cable connection for his laptop to check email. It was a new IBM with built in 802.11b and it asked if I wanted to use the ambient signal it found, first clue. I went ou
  • You read Slashdot.

    You have a girlfriend.


  • I suppose legally this falls under the unauthorized access portion of the law. For those that will say, "well, he left his wireless open so it's his problem", if you leave your car unlocked then I guess it is okay for someone to come in and take all of your change, after all you didn't lock your door. Just because you have security measures available does not mean that if you do not use them you are at fault for someone elses unauthorized access.

    That being said, any decent person, and especially someon
    • by Anonymous Coward
      Cars isn't a good analogy, because, number one, with Wifi there are plenty of public access points or folks who leave their networks open on purpose. With a car analogy this would be like people who leave cars laying around the city for anybody to use. That's not common and wouldn't be a good excuse for cars, but maybe it would be for wifi.

      Number two, you can tell one car from another pretty easy. With computer thats automatically associate to the strongest signal, or to "any" access point, it's common to
    • The problem with the open door analogy, is that if someone steals things from your house or car, you no longer have them. Downloading through someone else's network does not cost them anything. Sure, if they were for some reason using all their bandwidth at that point you might cause a bit of lag, but then again, if they were using that much bandwidth, you wouldn't get a 200kb/s download. The only complication is if, like ewhenn said, their bandwidth usage is metered. In that case its wrong unless you p
      • In that case its wrong unless you pay them whatever miniscule ammount it cost

        (Checks last bill)
        Hmm.. 22MB at 15c /MB .... $3.30 ... wouldn't want *too* many people doing that, thanks.
        Just consider yourself lucky that you live in a country with cheap internet access.
  • > I found an unprotected (i.e., no WEP, no MAC-address protection) WLAN and sucked down that file at over 200Kb/sec. Was I wrong to steal?"

    If you'd done that using my (hypothetical) work connection, you'd have cost us somewhere around US$1 in straight volume charges.

    So here, it'd be like stealing a dollar.

    I think there needs to be some standard developed for advertising wireless services. Terms and conditions, etc. So if you run a public free-for-all service, people can feel confident using it. If you
  • It's petty theft. Some what akin to grabbing an apple from the cart, as you pass a green grocer's shop.

    It is theft. It is wrong. But, the value is so low that the authorities are not going to attempt to enforce the law in such cases. You therefore, become a nuisance to the grocer and in the future he either hits you in the head with a broom or he moves his apple cart back inside the store.

    The same applies to this persons bandwidth. If they feel that they have suffered a loss they will make an effort to pr
    • Re:Simply put. (Score:3, Insightful)

      by benh57 ( 525452 )
      But you don't know that it was theft. In fact, since there are many FREE access points, open to ALL on purpose, one could reasonably argue in a court of law that since he didn't take the (two clicks!) necessary to protect his network, it was a reasonable assumption to assume the AP was one of those free access points. I would equate it more to picking up a flyer from a stack of coupon flyers left sitting on top of a news rack, or a diner counter. That could have been a stack of flyers just copied by someo
    • Depends on where you live.

      In my town, a 75 year old woman was arrested for eating a peanut from the produce dep't without paying for it.

      One peanut.
    • The problem with "petty crimes" is that while the real cost of the items stolen, or the damage done, is not usually significant, the effect on the people involved can sometimes be huge.

      I know people who have had their cars broken into and little or nothing stolen because there was nothing to steal. This however has ended up costing the owner £200 in various repairs. Now as far as the police are concered this is a petty crime and are not even really interested in trying to pursue it further... But the
    • It's petty theft. Some what akin to grabbing an apple from the cart, as you pass a green grocer's shop.

      The problem with this is the scale of it. Almost any broadband user has way, way more bandwidth than they are going to use every day. I'd wager that almost all of them aren't even maxing out their connection every day. So rather than stealing one apple out of someone's twenty or thirty, isn't it more like taking a drink from a privately owned stream? Or using a restaurant bathroom sink to wash not only y
  • There are a few things to consider:

    Chances are good the supplier of your fortuitious connection has an unlimited pipe.
    Chances are good that they weren't using it at the time(as attested by your connection speed)

    But the reality is that you did take something from them that they cannot get back, regardless of the fact that it didn't cost them anything extra.

    Unlike a water spigot, which is also paid for, you can connect without notice. This is the only ambiguous area. Furthermore, they are broadcas
    • Unlike a water spigot, which is also paid for, you can connect without notice.

      The Roman formula for exile was to deny water and fire to the person exiled. Only an ass would hoard what's essential and plentiful and only a criminal should be denied such things. This was not theft anymore than drinking from someone's running water hose on a hot day.

      Wireless has the potential to set us all free from per byte communication charges. Meshworks can eliminate the need for wires a comunity network can take the p

  • If they leave their access point unsecure, it's their fault. If they don't want people using it, they should secure it. The WAP's owner has to more right to complain about you using his bandwidth than someone who leaves their computer unsecured on the internet has to complain that it keeps getting hacked. I understand this sounds mean, but frankly people should take responsibility for some things and not depend on others not to take advantage of a situation.
    • Just because I leave the keys in my car by accident doesn't give you the right to borrow my car. The owner left it open because they probably didn't know better. Ignorance is not a good excuse but its NOT a reason to be stolen from.
      • In my home town, 25% of the folks leave their keys in their car on purpose. Dad's keys are probably rusted in the truck ignition.

        If you moved someone's car so the street sweaper could get buy, they'd thank you; if you drove thier car across town to the bar, you might end up with a pants load of buckshot.

      • > Just because I leave the keys in my car by accident doesn't give you the right
        > to borrow my car.

        Right. But this guy didnt go over to the persons house and plug into his hub/switch.

        If you drive your car into my front door and left it there with the keys in it however, and I had no idea why it was there, accident or not you can hardly bitch if I start your car and drive it elsewhere.

        Well i guess you can bitch, since you posted that stupid comment, but just because someone bitches about something
        • Hell, it doesnt even take more than common sense to realize "Wow i connected all my neet new magical toys and i can get on my internet connection from my living room with no cables!!! Wait, if i can, cant everyone else?"

          For most people, wireless access points are sold just like a cordless phone. And most people consider a cordless phone to only work with the handset that comes with it. Except they don't really think of it that way, they think of it as "It works with my stuff" as is, frankly, the reasonable

          • > Hmm. In one place you say "take advantage of the morons" and in another you say
            > "be polite and don't use a resource that someone asks nicely that you not use."

            Where you came up with that is beyond me. You also took what i said totally wrong.

            Example. At work (non IT job) there is a hub/switch on a desk with some machines attached to it.

            There is a HUGE difference between asking "Am i allowed to plug in there to get internet access?" then being told yes or no, and never once asking and intending
            • I think my issue here is with one of your starting assumptions.

              You seem to think that most people will (or at least should) realize that a non-WEP'd wireless access point is the same as saying "I'm willing to share" for a random home user. Or a random small business user, for that matter.

              I agree that WEP is inherently insecure, and not much better than politely asking someone "please go elsewhere." MAC filtering is the same, given cards that can clone MACs.

              Our basic disagreement comes from the fact that
    • The fact that it was (in some sense) the neighbour's fault for neglecting to secure his WLAN, does not make it ethical for someone else to access it.

      Suppose you left your car door unlocked by accident, and a total stranger decided to drive down to the local 7-11 to buy some chocolates for his girlfriend. By your argument, it is your fault because you forgot to lock the care door. And it follows that this makes it ethical for the stranger to borrow your car without asking you.

      (BTW: since you apparently

    • Hmm... So, let's extrapolate your argument to human interaction, just to see what happens.

      You're saying that the WLAN owner has a responsibility to secure his WAP (a point with which I agree whole-heartedly). If, however, he happens to be ignorant of WEP security or happens to be sufficiently technically-challenged such that configuring WEP security is beyond his capability (an altogether reasonable assumption--many people lack specific knowledge of commonplace tasks, rebuilding a car engine or wiring a li
  • I assume you were living in a soceity which considered stealing to be wrong, so yes, you were wrong.
  • Come on by. Use some bandwidth. Fine with me.
    If I cared, I'd WEP it. If I really cared, I'd WEP and MAC address lockout. If I really really cared, I'd only allow it single port access to a server with a VPN, then nobody could get through but me (in theory, anyway).

    If your neighbor is playing good music loudly, and you open your window and enjoy it, are you stealing (OK, no RIA comments, please :-).

    If you use someone's driveway to help turn around, are you stealing?

    I don't think so. If you reall fee
  • Most ISPs have clauses for broadband about sharing. It is a no no.

    At this time I don't think it breaks any laws, but then again I'm not a lawyer.

    If his usage caused a blip on the radar he could loose his account if he let people use the AP. They want the $40-$60 from those other people.

    If it is accidental, they would talk him through setting up WEP or Mac address filtering.

  • When is stealing ever ethical? The fact that you say you are stealing should be answer enough.

    On the other hand, how do you know you were stealing? Maybe the owner of the WLAN intended for it to be a public access point since they didn't take any measures to protect it. Maybe they are naive, but I think people who install WLANs are obliged to take some simple security measures that are not hard to find out about or learn about. If they are technical enough to configure it to work on a network they shou
  • Excuse me, but what exactly is the problem?
    Yes, in a court of law whoever rents out the infrastructure would argue that, at 120 baud rates, your download cost the company $2600, and so with legal fees you are liable for $200,000 in damages. And in these greed-oriented, legislator-bought, owners-take-all, times, they might get it.

    But there is no doubt in my mind who the criminals are.
  • Go find the dude, and give him a dollar. Problem solved.
  • I mean, if you were outside my house, I might OK temporary access for you to download drivers. Hell, I might go ahead and download them for you.

    Of course, I set up WEP once it occurred to me that providing free broadband for my hostile neighbors was not what I wanted to do with my free time.

    Maybe the guy's deliberately sharing his broadband. Maybe he hasn't figured out how to secure it. Wouldn't kill you to ask, would it?

  • If the owner if the wireless network didn't want you using their bandwidth, they would have protected it in some fashion. If you had circumvented this protection, you would have been stealing. However, since it was open to public access, you are free to use it as you see fit (standard rules of polite behavior using public media apply). If they decide they don't like that, they are free to restrict access. Instead of feeling guilty, think about how cool the owners were for providing such a public service.
  • If someone that you didn't know used your wireless connection to download files, how would you feel about it?

  • I purchased a 802.11b card in January, because a new roommate would be moving in with his Airport base station. Before he arrived with his base station I tried the card out and noticed that I had a 75% signal throughout the apartment.

    Within 5 minutes I had detected which manufacturer created the WAP next door, found the default admin log and pass, and changed the router name to "" to see if my neighbor would notice.

    It's been 3 months and I still use his connection whenever I want to downloa

    • "The guy could easily secure his network if he felt like it.. or if he was wise enough."

      what is it with you people thinking like scam artists. "they were so stupid they were asking for it!"

      stealing an ignorant persons bandwith is as bad as selling someone the brooklyn bridge.
  • HBO broadcast their signal without scrambling. You needed a very expensive and very large dish to get it. They tried to outlaw the dishes and I think it was decided that tough luck the signals fell on private property. So then they started to scramble the signal. I see a paralell here. If the wifi wasn't protected and the signal fell onto your property then it's yours for the taking.
    • but your not just recieving a signal that would have been there anyways, you then transmit, and use the connection, sending whatever the hell you got damn please, now your packets are tresspassing onto someone elses's network, was it wide open... yes, but just becouse i disnt lock my front door does not give you the right to come in and drink my damn beer.
  • Those frequencies belong to the public for public use. If they're accessible, they're yours.

    Courts may not agree, but mine wasn't a legal answer.

  • Was this on a college campus? Was it a campus access point you connected to? If so I'd say you paid for the bandwidth already. If not, yeah stealing is bad, even if it makes your life convienent.
  • So if the neighbor girl leaves her pants down, does that mean you can... er... um... "attach" to her "network" and upload some "packets?"

    You didn't see me type that.
  • don't you really know the answer, already?
  • Let's put this into another context: Older cordless phones on the 49 Mhz band didn't authenticate, and broadcasted in the clear (much like most of today's phones, which only authenticate -- Oh they joys of owning a scanner! Find out if your neighbours hate you [yet] or not!). This means that if you had your cordless phone off the base station and your neighbour had his tuned to the same channel (with his base station off), he'd be able to use your phone line. Illegal? Wrong? I'll let you decide. I su
  • Or, maybe it's like some person set up an access point in a manner that allows for access freely by all in range. Everyone wants an analogy. Seriously, one could argue that this situation is like a number of others. The truth is that you can't judge it as being like car theft, boxes in a stranger's living room, or the empty can of Red Bull (which I don't drink) I found in my garbage can when I brought it from the street last week. The way I see it, you have to go by what the user did not what the user meant
  • I would liken it to finding money on the floor. You can just take it but did you try to find out who the owner was first? Some WAP points allow you to set a comment and sometimes there's an email address in that comment.

  • That'll show if he:
    a) Doesn't mind - in which case relax and war chalk his door
    b) Does mind, but didn't know, in which case - fix his security and call it a fair trade
  • I don't see why you're bothering with that question. Wireless networking has numerous forms of security available. Requiring a simple security key is such a trivial step that I would take the fact that he left it wide open as a crystal-clear implication that he intended it to be public. If it wasn't intentional, then clearly he ignored the shiny baubles labeled "security" and "password" and such in favor of the shiny bauble labeled "start up now" or whatever, meaning that he doesn't care whether other pe
  • I want to be able to specify a list of MAC addresses in my access point that get priority. There should be a traffic shaper that gives me priority on my connection.

    I couldn't care less if somebody else uses my unmetered access unless it's slowing me down. At that point I care alot.
  • OK, you were loading your friend's machine, and it was going slow. What would you have done if you didn't have your laptop?
    1. "We'll let it run while I'm in class and deal with it later."
    2. "We'll stop this and deal with it after class"
    3. "We'll skip class and deal with this now."
    4. "I'll skip class and run back to my place, where I can download these faster."

    OK, so instead you went looking for an unsecured WAP. You knew you were wrong, and you did it anyway. Therefor, you have moral culpability for appropriat

  • by Deagol ( 323173 ) on Thursday March 27, 2003 @12:31PM (#5607814) Homepage
    If some satellite company goofed and beamed unencrypted HBO over the northern hemisphere for 24 hours, would they have a legal case to sue people who tuned in? Of course not!

    So, if you're broadcasting your access singnal, unlicensed and unencrypted into another residence, I say all bets are off.

    • Agreed, you might as well cry because the pay phone gave you your $0.35 back. No direct costs were had by the "victim".

      Sharing stuff like that is one of those things you want to do for your neighbors. Would I care if someone logged onto my wireless from time to time? No. I'm paying for my connection regardless of how much I use it. Would I mind if it started slowing me down? Yes and I'd figure out something to make things painful for me. Neighbors should share more than fences. What goes around, co

    • This isn't exactly the same as getting free HBO, because that's just an "intellectual" property issue: An infinite number of people could watch HBO, without depriving anyone else of it. An Internet connection isn't like that: You're using some of its (finite) capacity, and at some point somebody might even be billed per packet or per byte.

      Having said that, I don't think you did anything wrong, and I do the same thing! Many people do intentionally leave their Internet connections open, as they're paying a f
  • You did the right thing for her, but the wrong thing for the person owning the broadband connection. You should now say 10 Hail Marys and flog yourself, and all will be forgiven...
  • The person who left their network wide open chose to do so. The idea that an average person can't pick an even mediocre 8 byte password and copy that to any device they want to access the network with is ludicrous. Leaving a wireless network completely unsecured is a sign that they want to share their bandwidth with people who need it. You obviously needed it. It's like electrical outlets left unprotected in public spaces, or the piles of books people leave in the subway: if they didn't want it to be us
  • IANAL. That being said, In California, section 498 of the Penal Code makes theft of utility services illegal. Whether the law would apply in an individual case seems to depend on lots of things (who owns the router/bridge, who knew about the access, "intent", etc.) but it appears that you could get into criminal trouble.

    I used to work at a campus police department. We had regular problems with a street-person cranking up his boom-box in a campus parking structure late at night and annoying all the neighbor
  • ...did you pay for that Windows XP license?

"There is no distinctly American criminal class except Congress." -- Mark Twain