Ethix Forum – Issue 46

As wireless capability grows, more people are finding “hot spots” that have been left open by neighbors or nearby businesses. Is there an ethical problem in taking advantage of this “free access”? Why, or why not?

Just because something is freely accessible doesn’t mean you have a right to use it. If someone decides to have a picnic in your backyard, that’s a form of trespassing — even if you do not have a fence. If someone decides to use my car because I left it unlocked with the keys it, that’s theft. Using a wireless network without permission is trespassing on someone’s local network and is theft of their network resources. Also, your specific access to the Internet might violate the acceptable use terms the legitimate user has with their ISP. In general, if someone has not properly restricted access to a computing resource, that doesn’t grant you the right to use that resource.

From a security perspective, it is also not a good idea to use a network that you know nothing about. Just by virtue of it not having restricted access means it is not secure. In fact, it may be accessible for the purpose of monitoring, intercepting or manipulating your network traffic for malicious purposes.
James Maloney
Portland, Ore.

There’s an age-old dynamic at work: Tools improve faster and become available more widely than many users’ skills do. In this case, it’s a user’s serious error to set up a wireless network and leave it unprotected — like leaving your car on a city street unlocked and running. There’s a real obligation that such a driver has left unfulfilled.

But does an unlocked, running car give me a divine invitation to hop in and drive away — or is that a devilish one? “Borrowing” network access without explicit permission is no different.

Finally, the third ethical obligation: Shouldn’t I inform my neighbors about their unprotected WiFi network and offer to help them, just as I would if I learned they were leaving their garage unlocked unawares?
Jon Boyd
Chicago, Il.

My bias would be to say “no,” unless the owner states they will share their “hot spots.” Some do this for a fee, like Starbucks.

Otherwise I ask myself two basic questions, shaped by my belief ethics is more than just doing what I can get away with. Did I pay for this service? Was it meant for me? It would appear the answer is “no” on both counts.

Of course it would make sense for those who do not want others to tap into their “hot spot,” to encrypt their signals. That’s like locking your doors in a tough neighborhood.
Soo-Inn Tan
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

The question should be examined from two perspectives: the wireless company providing the WiFi technology and the end user(s) benefiting from the service.

Wireless providers need to understand leakage does occur with WiFi technology. There is nothing in the legal code that prohibits people from sharing unlicensed spectrum. However, as wireless technology evolves WiFi firms will work toward encryption of the underlying WiFi signal. So for now, the industry understands the practice is essentially unethical but currently a cost of doing business.

From the perspective of the end-user who knowingly uses “shared access” via WiFi, the answer is quite clear. The practice is not ethical! Stealing bandwidth represents additional costs to the bandwidth owner. This practice is analogous to trespass. If I invade someone’s property it may not hurt the land but what if hundreds were to do it? If hundreds were to do it and the practice deemed wrong (ethically) then it’s wrong for one person to engage in this activity on one occasion. Third, there is a security concern here.
Jeffrey L. Bradley
Portland, Ore.


It is not an ethical problem as they could easily encrypt the connection (this is available on every wireless router). By not doing do they give tacit permission. At my cottage, I leave the connection open for people to use, at home it is encrypted. Of course I could be wrong!
Tom Sudyk
Grand Rapids, Mich.

Developing technologies have an odd way of posing ethical dilemmas in a new light. But one always needs to ask who might be hurt. (Maybe some ethical prescriptions are not dependent upon hurting anyone but it’s difficult to conceive of the applicability of any such prescriptions in this context.) Presumably, the owner of the router (the “neighbor”) and the Internet service provider (the “company”) could be harmed.

How might your neighbor be harmed? In general, they are not harmed at all. In my discussions with technologically savvy friends, we have discussed how on rare occasions when both you and your neighbor are attempting to download a large file, the download could go slower. These same friends have suggested, however, that this potential impairment would occur on only the rarest of occasions. And it is very easy to password-protect the access. (Although I would not argue that a homeowner’s failure to lock her door makes it ethical for the thief to walk in and take that which does not belong to him). So we can imagine using the network could “hurt” ones neighbor, but this impact would probably be quite minor.

Let us now assume you have actually conferred with your neighbor and have their consent. This raises the question of harm to the provider of Internet access.
Presumably, they should be paid. It is difficult to understand, however, why your acceptance of a free product which reduces your demand for a paid service is, in itself, unethical. You are not breaking into the company vaults. You are not splicing the company cable. The company has produced a product that it knows can be connected to a router and broadcast beyond your neighbor’s property lines. Typical agreements with Internet providers (as best I can tell) do not preclude such a use of their services.

Two analogies may be apt. From the deck at the back of my house I look over the fence into my neighbor’s backyard. My neighbors are wonderful gardeners and invest substantial time and money in the production and upkeep of a magnificent garden. Indeed, their garden is so readily visible and so beautiful that I feel less need to buy seasonal flowers and other adornments for my own backyard. Under these circumstances, would the local nursery have grounds for complaining that my aesthetic enjoyment of my neighbor’s garden was an unethical act that deprived the nursery of whatever funds I would have spent in beautifying my own yard?

Sticking with the gardening theme but selecting what is perhaps an even closer analogy, suppose that I lived down hill from my neighbors. Suppose further that my neighbors entered into a water contract which, unlike most contracts, they purchased water on a flat-fee basis. That is, the water company was willing to sell them as much or as little water as they would use for a single price. Now assume that my neighbors begin to water their backyard and that the water (rolling downhill) seeps under the fence and waters my grass as well. Since I pay for my water based on use, I immediately recognize that I am saving money (and the water company is correspondingly losing money) by virtue of the fact that I can enjoy the overflow from my neighbor’s yard. Still, could one really claim that my failure to buy water that I did not need constituted an ethical violation?
Name Withheld
West Coast, U.S.A.