By now, Internet feels like the sort of resource that "should" be free. Like water and air, it's part of the fabric of our world; the central tool for entertainment, media, communication, and work. An ever-increasing number of homes are equipped with Wi-Fi networks that allow residents to connect. The wireless signals often extend to neighboring homes, meaning that you might be able to "see" and utilize your neighbor's Wi-Fi network if they do not secure it; without paying a dime to an Internet Service Provider (ISP).
Given the high monthly Internet fees, free service is certainly attractive. But is borrowing or stealing a neighbor's Wi-Fi network legal? Should you do so if you think you won't be caught?
There is no uniform federal law that explicitly allows or prohibits using a neighbor's Wi-Fi in the United States, though the criminal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act comes close. It applies to anyone who "intentionally accesses a computer without authorization or exceeds authorized access." It was first enacted in 1986, however, before Wi-Fi became prevalent. Courts have not yet been called upon to decide whether the definitions of "access" and "authorization" make common Wi-Fi theft a federal crime.
In the absence of clear federal legislation, many states have responded with legislation.
In California, for example, the 2020 Comprehensive Computer Data Access and Fraud Act (Penal Code § 502) criminalizes unauthorized access to "computer services," including Internet services. To be found guilty, you would have needed to knowingly use Wi-Fi in California without the owner's permission.
In Florida, § 815.06 of its statutes similarly makes it a criminal offense to access any computer system or computer network without authorization.
Whether such laws are actually enforced is another matter. In New York, for example, unauthorized use of a computer network is considered a misdemeanor, but the regulation is rarely enforced by police or prosecutors.
Nevertheless, there have been notable instances where prosecutors have enforced minor penalties against Wi-Fi thieves or "pirates." The state of Florida is known for arresting and charging people who stealing others' Wi-Fi.
Overall, however, while there are likely laws on the books in your state that make piggybacking on someone's Wi-Fi a crime, authorities rarely seem to police or enforce them.
In their terms of service, ISP companies typically prohibit the sharing of Wi-Fi connections between different households. It's not hard to imagine why: They are losing a paying customer if you are able to simple use your neighbor's account for free.
Many ISPs also track the bandwidth usage by each household. If the company realizes that one particular household is using double what it should be, there could be ramifications for your neighbor, like penalty fees. Indeed, your neighbor might receive a notice of the situation and eventually discover that you have been free-riding on their network.
Even if the ISP does not inform your neighbor that their household's usage is unusually high, your neighbor might experience a slowdown in service. If tech-savvy, the neighbor might even be able to detect what devices are utilizing their network.
Beyond the potential ethical implications of this free-riding, this could create hostility with your neighbor. It's unlike that you will be able to "play dumb" about your actions.
If you find an open Wi-Fi network, be cautious. The data you transmit over the network might not be secure.
Through a technique sometimes called "sniffing," unencrypted data passing over the airwaves can be snatched by third parties. This could include passwords, cookies, and other small bits of information. Any financial benefits of free Internet access would quickly disappear if, for example, your identity or bank information was stolen. Unsecured Wi-Fi networks are not safe avenues for much of your Internet business.