In the 21st century, Internet feels like the sort of resource that “should” be free. Like water and air, it’s become part of the fabric of our world. The Internet serves as the central tool for entertainment, media, communication and work. An increasing number of homes are equipped with Wi-Fi networks to allow residents to use laptops, tablets and other mobile devices. 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 that monthly Internet fees of $40-80 are not uncommon, free Internet is certainly attractive. Theft of Wi-Fi has become so common that folks have confessed to it in mass media. Is using a neighbor’s Wi-Fi network legal? Should you “steal” Wi-Fi, 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. The only federal law that perhaps addresses the issue is the criminal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which applies to anyone who “intentionally accesses a computer without authorization or exceeds authorized access.” That law was first enacted in 1986, however, before Wi-Fi became prevalent. Courts have not yet decided whether the definitions of “access” and “authorization” make common Wi-Fi theft a federal crime.
In the absence of clear federal legislation, different states have legislated and enforced (or not legislated or enforced) this issue in different ways. There have been a few notable instances where prosecutors have actually enforced minor penalties against Wi-Fi “thieves.”
For example, there was a Michigan man who used the Wi-Fi network of a neighboring coffee shop without permission. Similarly, a Florida man was forced to pay a small fine for stealing his neighbor’s connection. In New York, unauthorized use of a computer network is considered a misdemeanor, but the regulation is rarely enforced by police or prosecutors.
So, in short, while there are possibly laws on the books in your state that could make Wi-Fi stealing 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 using, there may 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. What you have been doing will be very clear. All of this can create tension and anger, if your neighbor discovers that you’re using the service free of charge.
If you find an open Wi-Fi network, be cautious. The data you transmit over the network may not be secure.
Through a technique sometimes called “sniffing,” your 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.
It is true that most Wi-Fi “thieves” are probably never caught, prosecuted, or jailed. Indeed, the jails would probably be overflowing if the police actually arrested everyone who piggybacked off someone else’s Internet account.
But that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. The data security risks are real, especially if you transact financial information over the Internet. And the downside of getting caught – either by your neighbor’s ISP or by your neighbor him- or herself – outweighs the upside of saving a few hundred dollars each year. No one likes a free rider.