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Whatcha gonna do when the wireless police come for you? Ask permission before stealing wireless

What is the “wireless etiquette” for using your neighbor’s wireless networks without permission? Or what about "wardriving", where you drive around with your laptop and electronically sniff for available free wireless networks? Or you're wondering why that guy is parked outside your house with his laptop open, and why he quickly snaps it closed when you approach.

The first two examples are pretty common. The third example actually happened. For the first time, a man, Benjamin Smith III, was arrested for the felony of accessing a computer network without authorization. The “first time” bit is this happened on a wireless network: Ben was parked outside someone's house, using a wireless network without permission, and eventually had the police called on him. He was arrested for doing the same thing you and I might do at our favorite local Internet café.

The difference is in the intention of the provider. Our neighbor's unprotected wireless network is not the same as our favorite local Internet café.

So what's the harm? Why should we secure our networks? Pick a reason: Unauthorized users (like Cackling Trenchcoat Guy outside your house with his laptop) can use your connection to the Internet for all sorts of illegal activities. Your connection has a unique address on the Internet, and that address points to you. When the police knock on your door asking about corporate hacking attempts and child porn Web sites, Cackling Trenchcoat Guy will be long gone.

There's also the aspect of your own data. Granting wireless access to your network allows others access to your computers and their information. Or, say I illegally copy and release Adam Sandler movies. If I'm caught with these files, I'm going to jail (for distributing them, not for liking them). No problem, I know that you have a completely unprotected wireless network. I can store my files on your network and have users download and watch using your connection.

There's a very easy solution: Password protection. If you want to share your wireless Internet between multiple computers, fine. Just make sure you know who is connecting. With password protection, you have full control over who gets in. If someone doesn't have the password, they can't use your connection. By default, most wireless networks are not password-protected. If you haven't yet protected your wireless network, do it. It's easy, and comes with significant benefits.

And what about "accidentally" connecting to your neighbor's? This is a case where the law needs to catch up with technology, but right now it's illegal. Beyond the social aspect, worry about the legal one: Get permission first.

When Marconi invented the radio, he never could have predicted its evolution into wireless networking and these associated ethical and legal problems. If he had, he would have given up on the whole "wireless communications" hogwash and invented something sensible, like scrapbooking or instant coffee.

Secure your wireless connection:

About Benjamin Smith III:

A listing of (honestly) free wireless hotspots in Grand Rapids:

Further questions:

What is WiFi and how does it work?

WiFi, also called “wireless fidelity”, is just a fancy way of saying your computer is connecting wirelessly to the Internet or another WiFi device, and behind the scenes lies the magic of radio. Yep, like your home’s cordless phone, WiFi works much the same. Only instead of transmitting voices, WiFi equipment broadcasts computer-readable data. Commonly, you have two types of participants in a WiFi network: The WiFi-enabled computers and “wireless access points”, or WAPs. The WAP can turn the WiFi signal into something that can be transmitted over land lines, allowing your computer to talk wirelessly with, for example, a cable or DSL Internet connection.

When I log on to a WiFi network, is the computer I’m using exposed?

Yes, unless you take steps to secure it. Some out-of-the-box installs of Windows are pretty insecure. That means yes, in some cases, files could be seen by other wireless network users. Secure your version of Microsoft Windows.

When I upload or download data from my computer over the WiFi airwaves, is that data vulnerable? What if I want to download a bank statement? Could someone snatch that out of the air?

All websites you visit, all forms you fill out (including passwords), all email you read, all files you download, all of these can be intercepted and read. The exception is if your connection is encrypted in some way. If your data is encrypted, your information is secure. Financial websites that take credit cards or show you online bank accounts should use encrypted pages. Find out if the web page you’re visiting is encrypted.

Another advanced form of encryption is to use a VPN (virtual private network). This is more common for business environments. If your office has a network administrator, ask for more detail.

If I’m at home, and someone (institution or individual) has a wireless network that spreads right into my property, is there any legal or ethical prohibition against using it? Are there any risks?

At home, I have a sprinkler watering my lawn. It sprays in a wide arc, and a little bit of my water sprinkles my neighbor’s grass. This water is something I pay for, but I don’t mind sharing. However, if I found out my neighbor moved my sprinkler to water more of his lawn, I’d get pretty irked. Right now, it’s a felony to use any network without permission, but because of wireless range and so many people putting up unsecure networks, laws really need to catch up to technology. Play it safe, out of concern for overprotective laws as well as respect for those from whom you “borrow” a connection: Always ask permission.

If a citywide wireless network gets set up, would every computer using the network be potentially vulnerable?

Sure, everything’s potentially vulnerable. There’s potential for the Hubble Space Telescope to come crashing down to earth. But significant measures have been taken to prevent a failure. Similarly, computers participating on a WiFi network can only “see” other PCs physically nearby. Any access beyond that requires special training as well as passwords and access to the citywide infrastructure. So if you follow steps to properly secure your PC, you have little to worry about. Get the best of both worlds: Browse WiFi networks safely, and sleep easy at night.