Think of all the devices that work with wireless Internet access— tablets, smartphones, and laptops. Wherever you are, your devices automatically find available wireless networks and you can easily see whether they’re secured or unsecured, meaning anyone can log on. And why not log in to a network that’s freely available? After all, doesn’t everybody do it?
At least 32 percent of people have tried to access a Wi-Fi network that wasn’t theirs, according to a 2011 poll conducted Wakefield Research in conjunction with Wi-Fi Alliance.
Laws addressing Wi-Fi piggybacking vary from state to state. In 2005, a man was arrested in Florida after he parked his car outside someone’s house and used their Wi-Fi signal without permission.
Arrests for unauthorized Wi-Fi use are most common when the network is being using for illegal activity. For example, in December 2012, a man in Westerville, Ohio, was arrested for using an unsecured Wi-Fi network to download child pornography.
Is it OK to share my wireless Internet access with my neighbors?
From a technological standpoint, you might not have any problems sharing your wireless Internet service with your neighbors. If the signal is available, it might seem like a no-brainer to let them to use it—especially if they’re willing to split the bill with you. However, be aware that allowing people outside your household to connect to your wireless account may violate your Internet provider’s terms of service.
For example, Comcast’s terms of acceptable use state that it is prohibited to “resell the Service or otherwise make available to anyone outside the Premises the ability to use the Service (through Wi-Fi or other methods of networking), in whole or in part, directly or indirectly and to connect the Comcast Equipment to any computer outside of your Premises.”
In any case, you can’t control what your neighbors do on the Internet, but if they’re using your access point, their behaviors could become your problem. In a recent case in Pennsylvania, police followed an IP address to find someone suspected of downloading child pornography.
However, when the suspect’s home and computer was search, no evidence was found. Instead, by using the “MoocherHunter” program, which shows users of a particular wireless signal, the police discovered that a neighbor was downloading the illegal materials.
When this case was heard in court, the judge ruled that a third party using a wireless account that doesn’t belong to them has no expectation of privacy.
People who access your Wi-Fi network can also use programs like Firesheep to see what you’re doing on the Internet.
How can I stop people from using my wireless account?
Obviously, the easiest way to stop unauthorized users from accessing your wireless service is to protect your account with a password. “The owner of the network can choose -- and most do -- to deny permission to strangers. For example, it's common to set up a Wi-Fi network that grants permission only to specific computers, or only to users who have been given a specific password,” says Mike Elgan in a blog post for ComputerWorld.
In the same blog, Elgan argues that users who don’t lock their accounts with passwords have given implied permission to everyone to use their wireless. “If the connection simply works, it means by definition that the network is set up to automatically grant you permission to use it, and to actively provide the means for you to do so,” Elgan writes.
The Wi-Fi Alliance offers tips on setting up your wireless security. Strong passwords are key. "Ensure that your network password is at least 8 characters long, does not include any dictionary words or personal information, and is a mix of upper and lower case letters and symbols," the organization said in a press release. "A tip that might make password management easier is to create an acronym from easy-to-remember phrases. For example, "my daughter's birthday is July 7, 1987" could become the password "MDBi7787.”