Fear and self-loathing in stealing Wi-Fi


With a wry twinkle of the eye and nostalgic sighs, Lev Grossman has posted a humorous article over at TIME about his three years spent as that most loathsome of criminals, the Wi-Fi thief. At the end of the day, Grossman got off scottfree, but leeching Wi-Fi isn't without its travails:

Mine wasn't a particularly sociable apartment building, but wi-fi transcends urban alienation. You can draw your blinds and grunt at me on the stairs all you want, No. 7, but I can see your network just fine. Some people thought of creative names for their networks: ParisBrooklyn, MessageInaBottle. Some were boring: linksys, NETGEAR, default. I was always happy to see the boring ones, because the people who don't bother thinking of clever names for their home networks are the same people who don't bother to password-protect them. Anybody who calls his hot spot WebOfDarkness isn't going to give me any wireless love. I think YouHavSomNerv was on to me too.

You don't fly first class when you're stealing bandwidth. Wi-fi hot spots are large--about the size of a football field--but those signals had to pass through a lot of masonry before they got to my laptop. Wi-fi operates on an unlicensed frequency, so it has to deal with interference from baby monitors and microwave ovens and cordless phones too. As a result, my Internet access would vanish and reappear like a will-o'-the-wisp, even when I engaged OS X's excitingly named "interference robustness" feature. I always seemed to lose connectivity just when I was about to send a crucial e-mail--it's embarrassing to run down a city street waving your laptop around like a crazy person, but it's amazing how unselfconscious you get when you have to find one lousy bar of wi-fi in the next two minutes or you're going to get fired.

I always find myself, in abstract, believing in leaving my Wi-Fi open to be neighborly. When it comes down to doing it, though, I find I begrudge the loss of oomph, the sacrifice of upstream and downstream to a neighbor's thoughtless torrenting. Would I let my neighbor use my shower if his was broken? Sure. But if the constant choice I had to face was letting him take a shower and therefore only having half as much hot water when I came around to bathing, I'd terminate the arrangement quickly, leaving him to dehydration and feculence. Do you guys simply leave your wireless open to everyone, including the will'o'wisps?

Confessions of a Wi-Fi Thief [TIME]

Join the Conversation


  1. Would that I were more altruistic, but yeah, no. If the feds nail me for downloading a copy of some French movie, that’s fine, because it was me. But I’m a little paranoid about being fingered for someone else’s bandwidth crime (in college, a couple of my friends got slammed with incredible fines). All this said, I won’t download anything when I’m on an open network — I’m a mooch but I’m not an asshole.

  2. I keep both my wireless and shower to myself, but I’m well aware that this are the little things that will keep me from going to heaven.

  3. On my network I run QoS to make sure my packets have priority. If they’re torrenting, it caps them before my latency is affected, and if I need to make a big download their speed drops to almost nothing until i don’t need the bandwidth anymore.

  4. If your computer says “may I use your network?” and their router says “sure, here’s an ip address,” then it’s not stealing. That’s like saying that I’m stealing access to web pages at boingboing.net because I didn’t ask for permission first before my computer said “can I have this web page?” and your server said “sure, here you go.”

    That said, I agree, I don’t want to get blamed for somebody else’s bad internet behavior, so my network is closed.

  5. I use DD-WRT to partition my wireless router into a private WPA wifi network and an unencrypted “public” wifi network. DD-WRT lets me set a bandwitdth cap on the public part of the network.

  6. Open as the day is long.

    But I don’t think I’ve ever found someone using it. My neighbors are all much older than me. They’ve had trouble with their cable box. (Which I helped them with.)

  7. i don’t leave it open .. although i would love to .. if i ever figure out how i could assign a little amount of up and down to the open stream .. i would love to help strangers in need with some email checking .. but not a neighbor kid downloading porn on 2 computers at double speed …

    Here in Italy everyone is so paranoid .. you never really see a not password protected network .. telecom italia sets you up with a 16 digit no-way-i-can-remember-that password … and you cannot change it.

    I even asked my neighbors once if i can log in . they flat out denied .. saying “what if you write some terrorist emails on my connection” .. yep .. right .. thank you ..

  8. I’m very grateful to one of my neighbours for leaving their Wi-fi open. Both my dialup and DSL modems broke for a couple of days and I needed to get online to figure out how to fix them (figures).

    I’d open mine but I’m too paranoid. I was really careful about not downloading anything big, not using Youtube or bittorrent, etc., while I was on their network. I can’t really count on anyone else to be so courteous. But frankly, I’d be more worried about someone breaking into my computer or snooping my banking password than stealing my bandwidth.

  9. I don’t just because I play to many online games, and it really hurts the KDR.

    That and my QoS settings are stupid on my router. I live in a 12 apartment building and I see 19 different networks, every single one of them protected.

  10. My network’s open. It’s convenient for me and my guests–dead easy to get online–and I’ve never noticed the slightest degradation in performance from any neighbors borrowing the signal. This may mean none of my neighbors has ever done so; I don’t know. I also don’t care.

  11. Not in this neighborhood. The network is locked down tight. Most of my immediate neighbors have wi-fi anyway. And even if we did want to share, these crappy – excuse me, charmingly retro – 1970s tract homes have so much junk in the walls that we can even get a good signal through the house without using a booster. If we were open and anyone did connect, the signal would be terrible.

  12. I have an open public network as well as a closed one

    Just look for the SSID ternet 😉
    the images are not blurry it’s just you

  13. I agree with most of the posters. I’d love to leave it open, but I don’t because I don’t want someone to snoop my packets. Esp if my wife or someone else is printing files that are important.

    But I do like the idea of the DD-WRT firmware partitioned into two seperate networks. One protected with WPA and such, and the other limited in bandwidth with QoS but open to all. That I’d do, since it wouldn’t impact me, but would let me share resources I’m not currently using.

    I recently setup a Wireless router at my mom’s for just this purpose, since I didn’t feel right mooching WiFi from the neighbors. The baby was asleep in the computer room, which made wireless useful.

    So if more wireless vendors would give you the ability to do both easily, then I would.

    So yeah, lock down your connections (use SSL tunnels, SSH, etc) but leaving something open for others to use when you’re not seems like just good manners.

  14. I had a hot blind date earlier this year when the phone lines went down in my neighborhood, along with my DSL. Luckily my neighbor had cable and an open wi-fi, so I was able to check the time and place using my Nintendo DS + Opera.

    The date: not so much luck.

  15. My Wi-Fi is as open as the skies; then again, my neighbors all have it, too, or they are older and don’t even have use for it. But I do turn it off at night or when I’m gone from the house.

    When I was in Hawaii staying at a condo, a lot of the other condos had internet connections (mine didn’t). Some tourists would bring their own routers and then label them “compliments of 203” or some such; basically, openly sharing their bandwidth. And you know I used it every day!

  16. Here in the Netherlands, there is a trend emerging where people drive around in a car with a laptop, looking for open Wi-Fi, and once found, they use it for stuff you would realy realy not want it to be used for. I’m talking kiddy porn and stuff like that.
    You know I do so digg this -let’s share stuff- attitude. And I’d believe in it too if not for the fact that there are a lot of confused individuals out there.
    This computer is plugged into the wall.

  17. Thus far, I’ve always kept my wifi networks open. I think it’s the neighborly thing to do. I’ve never had performance problems because of it.

    There was a little bit where I had a complicated set-up where I was using a chain of wifi routers to get an internet connection from my landlady’s office (one end of the house) to my bedroom (the other end). The reliability of that was fairly poor, so to avoid further degrading it, I told it not to announce the SSID.

    Right now, our router is open and announces its SSID, but we live in a fairly sparse neighborhood made even more sparse by the fact that of our 8 immediately neighboring lots, 3 are empty (two unoccupied houses and a vacant lot). I’d be surprised if anyone else has used our network here. However, this summer we’re moving to a new house which is in a denser residential neighborhood and is a taller house, so I was thinking of getting a high gain antenna and putting it in the attic to get a wider coverage area. Along with this will also be some QOS stuff to ensure that we get priority for the internet connection.

    Really, I have come to have a belief that there ought to be free internet available everywhere. I can’t make that happen myself, but I can at least make it happen in my little corner of the world. It’s not going to be without cost to me, but it will be worth it to live up to my own principles of how the world should be.

  18. I have mine closed. I use Windows Media Center over wifi, so if anyone is on my network, my TV starts getting choppy. But if friends come over, I have a very easy hex key for them to put in to get it 🙂

  19. Interesting to hear from all you internet good Samaritans. For my part, I’m writing this from a stolen internet connection that just now miraculously popped back into existence after a weekend of nothingness.

    I was furious at my unknown neighbor for letting his/her signal disappear. Doesn’t he/she know that I depend on it? I mean, the occasional blip I understand–it’s not like I can bang on his/her door when the modem needs to be reset, even if I knew which one it was. But three days smacks of negligence, or even maliciousness.

    So thanks a lot, Mr(s). Linksys 0F-F6-00…. Because of you, I was forced to spend half my Saturday at a coffeeshop listening to some horrible fourth-rate indie crud, instead of relaxing in the comfort of the chair I have set up directly against the southernmost corner of my patio window. You’re a horrible person, and if there were an ounce of justice in this world you’d be liable for my emotional distress.

  20. The impression I have, from the last time I looked into this in 2006, is that the law in the United States is going to hold me liable for everything that occurs through my Internet connection, even if I have a perfectly reasonable explanation of an open wireless AP.

    It’s nigh-on impossible for even a homeowner’s association in one of the most well-to-do suburbs of Dallas to set up Internet-for-all, due to the incredibly high cost of entry to CLEC status (which is the beginning of legal protection from what other people run over your wire) and the telecoms lobbying into existence legislation interpretation and enforcement making it illegal for a municipality to offer Internet access.

    I have a wife.

    I have a baby on the way.

    Both must eat.

    For me, civil disobedience isn’t an option anymore.

    Anyone who visits me in my apartment gets the wireless key.

    I also am not giddy on the prospect of using someone else’s open AP so they can snoop my traffic, or letting someone snoop my own AP if it’s open.

    That reminds me; Time to change my passwords again.

  21. My roommate and I have the only open network within reach of where I live. I’ve relied on others’ generosity in the past, so I’m giving back. Maybe if my connection began to slow a whole lot I’d change my mind. But despite living in an urban environment, there isn’t too much traffic going through the router that isn’t mine or my roommate’s.

    The coffee shop down the block is friendly with their WiFi, but that doesn’t reach me.

  22. You can’t really “steal” wifi unless you walk off with someone’s AP 🙂 I use open wifi all the time with my mobile devices.

    You can misuse it, and that should be a secondary civil or criminal charge if what you’re doing on it is illegal. Especially when the police have had to go to the trouble of investigating and (hopefully) clearing the wifi owner. Also, if you’re on your neighbor’s wifi, you should be very very careful not to poke at anything on their LAN: An open window or unlocked door on a house does not give you the right to enter and explore a dwelling.

    Radio signals obviously don’t fall under the same law, but if you’re hanging out around a house or a business – even their parking lot is still private property – for the sole purpose or using their open wifi, they have the right to ask you to stop or leave.

    It’s a lot like using their restroom: If you must it’s OK, but it’s more polite to buy something, and don’t spend hours in there!

  23. Using open WiFi networks is not stealing, it’s more like breathing.

    I leave mine open an leave the ssid such that it is obviously free to all.

  24. I have a La Fonera router that I leave on. I found that the LaFonera network seems like a nice balance; if you’re part of the network and giving back, you get wireless at LaFonera hotspots for free. If you really want to access the network, but don’t have a router, you can pay. If you have a router, and you don’t want to get free wireless from other people, you can make a bit of revenue when other people access your hotspot.

    In a couple of years, I’d like to get one of the mobile broadband cards, rig it up to something like the LaFonera router, and get enough solar panels to power the whole shebang. Then I’d package it up, and slap it on the roof of my car. It’s a great theory; I suspect implementation is going to suck.

  25. I keep my wireless open, but I track my guests
    (Hi “Annes Laptop”!)

    I also have a double router which has so far kept the horse porn off my computer.

    For years I have used other people’s open wifi so I feel an obligation to share mine.

  26. I’ve taken advantage of unsecured networks for years without the slightest pang of guilt…

    I have requested authorization to access the internet via that particular router, and that router granted access based upon the configuration selected by its owner.

    Therefore, I have been given permission to use.

  27. My network is wide open too. I’ve even named it “Surf 4 Free On Me” so no one has to worry about “stealing.” I had free internet for a good couple of years before my neighbour moved away, and I figured that the least I can do now is pay it forward.

    And I already share the network the my roommate, and haven’t noticed a speed difference. But then, I don’t do much downloading and I’ve always been sharing a connection. Perhaps I just don’t know what I’m missing.

    And I’m in Canada, so I figure that I’m safe for the time being from being slapped with big fines. My biggest concern is someone tapping into my computer, but I know so little about network security that I don’t know how it works or what the threat really is, so I choose to not worry about it. Ignorance is probably stupid, but bliss is nice.

    All this is probably going to change however, since my ISP has decided to put a limit on “free” downloads, and while I don’t mind letting someone use my service for free, paying for their downloads is pushing it. Stupid ISP.

  28. I just had to rethink my feelings about Net Neutrality and open WiFi. The cute grandchildren dropped by to spend a night and see grandma. They ask for the WiFi key. Told that they are welcome to email and browse, but please no file downloads. They fire up Bitorrent and bring the DSL connection to its knees. After a couple of hours of slow page loads and a silent mantra in my head of the most recent MPAA and RIAA court cases, claims and fines, I shut everything down for the 1st time in years.

    In the morning over coffee the kid says that the connection went down during the night (10:30 on the dot). I asked wtf part of no file downloads did he not understand? Then we moved on to who owned the file that he was downloading. “Its from Bitorrent”, he said grinning. My reply is not fit for public consumption.

    I’ll open up my connection, when I can cap usage and do not open myself up to legal hassles.

  29. There are three reasons why I leave mine open:
    1. It makes me feel all altruistic
    2. I live in a suburb with a lot of people. Not a lot of tech savvies who’ll take advantage of it.
    3. It protects me from liability. If anyone tries to tell me I did something wrong (legally) with my connection, they won’t be able to prove it was me, which makes it quite a bit harder.

  30. @28 SteveW

    I’ll open up my connection, when I can cap usage and do not open myself up to legal hassles.

    I2P and/or Tor are your friends. DD-WRT makes it relatively easy to filter any bittorrent that doesn’t tunnel through your I2P/Tor node. And I know you can set your throttle easily in I2P — because regardless of how much traffic you move through I2P, it will always use that amount for everyone else’s packets.

    After you have those tools in place, remember that, really, it’s your kids who are right and the MAFIAA who are wrong. “Intellectual property” is “imaginary property”. It has nothing to do with common law property — which exists as a social tool to peacefully decide who gets to use which rival goods. Since information is non-rival (hence sharing, not “stealing”), the marketing term of “intellectual property” for what are actually government grants of monopoly (copyright, patents, trademarks) is a misnomer. (My interpretation is that “intellectual property” was a phrase invented to purposefully conflate it with real property.)

  31. From the balcony of my high castle I can see the public library, a little less than a mile away. Its network runs 24/7 and I have freely accessed it (since I am a patron) from an outside lawn table and from my car in its parking lot. My question is, how do I ride it from a mile away?

  32. I’ve both given and received free wireless, but once people started getting charged with downloading kiddie porn because others had access to their network, I was done. I’m not enough of a geek to only allow browsing while blocking downloading, and the unfortunate side effect of being an almost-lawyer is that I know people really DO get prosecuted on flimsy BS charges. I don’t even file share and won’t accept the legal risks associated with others doing so–I have no interest in ever having to “prove my innocence” to a jury of my peers. Sure, my squeaky clean computer ought to exonerate me, but if I was one of the unlucky few who got screwed for my generosity, it would bankrupt me and ruin my career. I live in Austin, so free internet is readily available in cafes, bars, etc, so I don’t feel all that bad.

  33. I used an open network in a 8-person shared house once, and since we lived across the street from a bank, I named the network after it. If an unrecognized MAC connected, they’d get redirected to an official looking fake page apparently from the bank saying that their act of hacking had been reported to the FBI. It didn’t go over well when guests used the network or people got new computers.

  34. I use fon as well…
    The box manages 2 wifi networks: one private with wpa and one public with the fon system which tunnel straight to the internet (can’t access your local network)…

    I’ve been riding on people’s wifi as well, mostly when travelling… I try to keep the burden for them to a minimum…

  35. I like the idea of leaving a trickle, say 16k, available for public use, like a water fountain. Block certain ports and notorious addresses and you’ve shown reasonable due diligence if bad luck strikes in the form of a child pornographer or atomic terrorist discovering your open AP.

    Of course, local laws may expressly prohibit this.

    The results of a bit of lazy browsing suggest that Apple’s Open Transport may lend itself to this. Anyone tried this with on an Airport Express?

  36. My neighbor and I both have closed networks but we shared keys so we can each jump on the other’s network during personal network down times.

    #31 check out http://www.hyperlinktech.com They have a wide assortment of high gain antennas. One of the grid antennas should fit your application nicely.

  37. I’ve occasionally checked my apartment building with my laptop to see if anyone’s got an open network. They’ve always been closed.

    I recently got a wireless router, and after much cursing, got it hooked up. Almost immediately, my access slowed to a crawl; once I slapped a password on, problem solved.

    Open network? Good in theory, but in practice–at least in my building, where neighbors never say hello and leave their laundry in the one washer and dryer all freakin’ day–not so much. Maybe I’ll use one of the programs mentioned above to ration it out, someday.

    1. w000t,

      I don’t know where you were going with that link, but it didn’t work. And that’s probably a good thing.

  38. I leave my Wi-Fi wide open. Mostly because I always need other people’s free Wi-Fi, and to take and not return seems wrong.

    I have about 12 Wi-Fi networks around me. It seems like a year ago almost all were open. Now only “default” is. Boy did I rely on default this past week while waiting to get my cable box replaced…

    I wonder if “ShameOnYou” is against Wi-Fi sharing….

    But I am a little worried, like many others seem to be, about the issues of safety, both in terms of people using my network for illegal activities, and for packet sniffing.

    What free tools are there for controlling how much access third parties have when using your Wi-Fi? Ideally, I’d like to be able to control their downloading, cap their transfer speeds, and protect my own data from being monitored.

    Naturally the best solution is to close down my connection, but I’m loath to do that for the reasons mentioned above.

    So any good tools people recommend for the slightly-but-not-so-much-techie?

  39. I’m lazy, my wi-fi is wide open – and it leaves a big ‘ol hole for “it wasn’t me – somebody must have stole my wi-fi”

    Plausible deniability ftw. Although I’m not quite sure that definition fits here exactly.

  40. #36: Thanks, ANDREW. Seems they’ve got just what I need. Never thought I’d need to ride free, but I got in a beef with C—— and they’re the only cable show in town.

  41. @30zuzu
    Your second paragraph is the most brilliantly astute, not to mention succinctly explained, analysis of the inherent fallacy of “intellectual property” ever. I’m not entirely certain that it was a deliberate obfuscation from the beginning — or simply that the metaphor of tangible property was what was ready to hand to explain something about the status of certain kinds of work in a developing capitalist order, and the metaphor became the engine of a runaway train, which eventually became a convenient conceptual framework for certain interested parties, but overall: Bingo!

  42. I used to leave mine open all the time, but it seemed to be running slow. Of course, I live 5 blocks from campus in a college town so I’m sure there were dozens of people on it all the time. My compromise was to make it password-protected and only a few of my friends and neighbors I’ve actually met have the password. Of course, I’m sure others will slink on to it eventually at which point I’ll just change the password and only notify the trusted people.
    But I’d never really considered being implicated in anything illegal until I read these comments. I’ll probably keep my setup as is, but it does make me wonder what my neighbors are up to…downloading and what not. Maybe I should just lock it all up.

  43. @Packet sniffing concerns:
    If you are connecting with wireless over an open (unencrypted) connection, then the traffic is visible to anybody in the area. On the other hand, most routers provide both wired and wireless access. People on wireless won’t be able to see the traffic on the wired portion and vice versa.

    Another concern is that people who are on wireless or wired are both behind the firewall that the router provides. That doesn’t immediately give people access to your home computers, but it allows them the opportunity to try exploiting them. With alternative firmware, like DD-WRT or OpenWRT, you can configure the wireless network to be separate from the wired network so that your home computers are still behind their own firewall.

    Unfortunately, there will always be legal concerns. If our legal system were better, it wouldn’t assume that whoever pays the bill committed the crime, but that’s generally where it ends up. The types of protections that apply to ISPs don’t apply to people who leave their wireless open.

    What would help is a system whereby people could get access, but only after they proved who they were. Nobody would be denied access, but when the police come knocking on your door, you can show them the list of who was using your WiFi at that time. Unfortunately, this just isn’t practicle right now — there’s no commonplace, reliable system to electronically prove your identity to a third-party who you’ve never met before.

  44. Fonera’s a nice friendly system for sharing wireless. An even easier to use system is named “linksys” – seems to be available in most cities 🙂

    I keep my wireless open for guests, and about half my neighbors have open wireless, though not all of them support everything (one of them has an ISP that blocks Port 25, one of them does something with NAT that my work VPN can’t traverse), and occasionally when I’ve had DSL problems I’ve used a neighbor’s access until the telco fixes whatever they just broke down the street. My ISP’s policies let me share my wireless, run servers at home, etc., and aren’t part of the fear-and-panic flashcrowd that the cable modem companies have been drumming up for years. I’ve only had a problem with it once, when a neighbor’s laptop got virused and started sending spam from my wireless; my ISP gave me a call the next morning, and I shut the wireless down for a couple of days until she could get it cleaned up.

    What I’d really _like_ would be open access and encryption, but unfortunately the standards assume you want to either be all open or all closed, as opposed to private but friendly.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *