Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Free Wi-Fi for all...or not?

An interesting arrest in London has recalled the debate of whether using unsecured Wi-Fi networks is ethical or not? See story here. Piggybackers are described as individuals that 'piggyback' onto unsecured Wi-Fi networks. Some for good other for more nefarious purposes.

Though this case is in London, similar cases have been seen across the United States. The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act is the typical law used to prosecute piggybackers. Is piggybacking wrong? Legally it is wrong in the United States. What about ethically?

Here is a parallel. I drop a dollar on the public sidewalk outside my home. I, for the purpose of this parallel, do not notice the dollar and keep walking. Is it stealing if a person were to pick up the dollar? My opinion is no. However, it appears that wireless signals constitute a different body of thought.

In the current legal framework the wireless signals of a Wi-Fi network remain private. Why is it that Wi-Fi signals necessitate a seperate law? WiFi signals are nothing more than electromagnetic waves eminating from a source. Why does this medium have different ownership privelages?

The questions abound in my mind about the ethics surrounding the piggybacking of WiFi signals. Though I understand the potential business loss to ISPs if wireless signals were shared, I do not see the harm that is caused to the ISP's subscriber. At least in most cases in the United States, ISPs charge Internet fees based on access speeds, not on data amounts transmitted. Thus the piggybacker would not cause any direct financial loss. But may circumvent paying the ISP for Internet access.

With the right and privelage to use Wi-Fi signals also comes a responsibility to use those signals responsibly. In my opinion, if the Wi-Fi signals and network are not responisbly secured to prevent unauthorized access, then the individuals that piggyback onto the Wi-Fi network should not be prosecuted.

There is no simple answer to the ethical question. Though a way to stop the situation from arising would be to require that Wi-Fi signals be secured when the wireless device is installed. Another method to mitigate piggybacking is to require that Wi-Fi access points be secured by default from the factory.


librarycomputerguy said...

This one really confounds me as well. I've met people who leave their wifi open BECAUSE they wish to share it with neighbors. I think you may be right in asserting that the ISPs fear loosing money if this is done.


Anonymous said...

In my opinion, piggybacking is primarily a security issue. But, for argument sake, if you want to consider it from a purely ethical standpoint and use your "dropping the dollar bill" image then my question would be, did the person who picked up your dollar see you drop it?
Ethical standards are typically higher than legal standards. If I saw you drop a dollar (thereby knowing it belonged to you) then I would feel more ethically bound to return it to you than if I just happened upon a dollar lying on a sidewalk with nobody around to ask about it.
I think most of us could stand to lose a dollar, even if we saw someone claim it after we lost it. But what about a diamond ring or some other item of similar worth? Does your ethical obligation change simply due to the increase in value of the object lost/claimed? Even if your ethical obligations don't change, I bet your attitude would!