I Was a Wi-Fi Freeloader

Small wireless networks are everywhere in the city. Some Net activists want you to know where the free zones are. Is it ethical to access them?

By Steven Levy

July 30 issue -- The other day, I plopped down on my living-room couch to do some work on my laptop while watching a football game. The family cable modem, which pumps high-speed Internet into our abode, was at the other end of the apartment, hardwired to a computer on a desk in the bedroom. So I had no access to e-mail or the Web. Or did I?

I HAVE a program on my PowerBook called MacStumbler, which tells me whether Iím within the signal area of any localized "wi-fi" networks. Wi-fi is a means of beaming an Internet connection wirelessly.

Though the range is relatively small ––commonly a few hundred feet––people have set up thousands of wi-fi nodes at home, within corporations or in public spaces such as a Starbucks. To my surprise, I discovered that my laptop was picking up two of these signals. Clearly, a couple of my neighbors––I couldnít tell whether they were fellow tenants or nearby businesses––were inadvertently bleeding wi-fi into my apartment. Neither signal utilized encryption or even password access, so in theory I could use either one to surf the Web, or even check my e-mail, without budging from the couch-potato position.

Would that be wrong? Whether such an act is ethical or even legal turns out to be a knotty issue. The trendy activity these days among wireless geeks is something called war-driving. This involves motoring around a city with a laptop, sniffing out active wi-fi access points. War-drivers then post results to the Net, to serve the unwired rabble. A variation on that theme is war-chalking: drawing symbols on the sidewalk to alert passersby that free access might be afoot. (This in the spirit of Depression-era hobos who created arcane hieroglyphics to brand householders who might give a free meal to a stranger.) While owners of some nodes are totally cool with strangersí using their network, others have no idea that theyíre offering free Internet access to drive-by nerds. And some people are calling foul.

Last month cell-phone giant Nokia put out an advisory attacking war-chalkers. Using other peopleís bandwidth without permission "is theft, plain and simple," claimed Nokia. Earlier, FBI agent Bill Shore, who fights computer crime out of Pittsburgh, posted a message to companies, urging them to encrypt their signals to frustrate trespassers. He also had some words for freeloaders. "Identifying the presence of a wireless network may not be a criminal violation," he wrote. "However, there may be criminal violations if the network is actually accessed, including theft of services, interception of communications, [and] misuse of computing resources, up to and including violations of the Federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Statute, and other federal violations." Yikes.

Not everyone agrees with Shore. "I think [accessing open signals] is legal," says Jennifer Granick, a criminal lawyer who heads Stanfordís Center for Internet and Society. "Thereís a lot of free wireless networks that people put up for anyone to use, and thereís no way of knowing that a signal isnít open for anybody." For the tiebreaker, I went to the U.S. Department of Justice, where a spokesperson told me that as far as federal law was concerned, "thereís not an explicit yes or no ... itís case-dependent." The bottom line seems to be that if the signal is open (meaning you donít have to forge a password or break encryption to access it), youíre probably all right to use it––unless a state law specifically bans the practice, or some court later decides that current law makes it illegal. Is that clear?

Legal matters aside, thereís the question of ethics––is using someoneís bandwidth a moral violation? John Patrick, a former IBM vice president whoís now an author ("Net Attitude," Perseus), recently discovered an open node of unknown origin. He had no problem, and no guilt, taking advantage. "Itís like walking down the street and finding a $10 bill," he says. "It doesnít feel like youíre harming anyone."

But not all the wireless cognoscenti agree. Tim Pozar, cofounder of the pioneering Bay Area Wireless Users Group, thinks that pulling a Patrick is bad karma. "Bandwidth cost money," he notes––and if enough interlopers butt in, the connection can run slower. To Pozar, an open signal is not like a stereo blaring music out an open window, offering a free concert to those strolling by. Itís more like an outdoor electrical outlet. Just because the outlet is easy pickings, does that mean itís OK for some moocher to recharge a cell phone on someone elseís dime?

So what did I do on that lazy couch-potato day? Get real––I downloaded my mail and checked media news on the Web. When I confessed this to FBI agent Bill Shore, he spared the handcuffs. "The FBI wouldnít waste resources on that," he sniffed. Now I know that if it did, it would be hard to argue that I broke a law. Whatís more, I certainly didnít feel illegal. Because––and this is the point of all that war-driving and -chalking and node-stumblingówhen you get used to wireless, the experience feels more and more like a God-given right. One day we may breathe bandwidth like oxygen––and arguing its illegality will be unthinkable.

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