Wednesday, September 22, 2010


Shortly after we made an offer to buy a house a few years ago, my wife and I were driving through the small village where the property was located. It was lunchtime and, given that we had already bombarded our Realtor with questions in person, we felt it was best to pose our remaining questions by e-mail.

I had my laptop with me and had read somewhere that the village had set up wireless hotspots throughout town for resident access. Unfortunately, I couldn't detect any of these spots with my laptop. But after we parked in the lot of a sandwich place for lunch, I did notice that there was an unsecured Wi-Fi connection available, presumably from a nearby business.

I connected successfully and sent off the e-mail to our Realtor before we headed in to grab a sandwich.

A recent e-mail from E.W., a reader from Ohio, reminded me of my parking lot Wi-Fi adventures.

E.W. recently bought a Wi-Fi capable laptop computer. "Right out of the box," he writes, "I realized that my apartment complex was a hot spot with three or four Wi-Fi connections to access around the complex. This got me thinking: Why pay for my own Internet service when I can sponge off of these folks?"

When E.W. surveyed his friends about tapping into the available Wi-Fi spots, the reaction was decidedly mixed. Some thought it was OK, while others told him it would be dishonest.

Ultimately, E.W. says he "minimally" borrowed his neighbors' Wi-Fi access for the week it took to get his own wireless service installed.

Still, he wants to know if it was wrong to tap into other's unsecured Wi-Fi signals.

I wrote about the Wi-Fi issue several years ago and still maintain that it was perfectly fine to tap into an unsecured Wi-Fi signal. Planning to do so for the long term may be impractical since you never know when neighbors may decide to make their signal secure and leave you without a connection. But my take -- much to the chagrin of many readers -- remains that the right thing for Wi-Fi users to do if they don't want others using their signals is to take the simple steps necessary to make it password protected. It's never OK to try to gain access to a signal that is clearly identified as secured.

Of course, some municipalities may have regulations forbidding users to access any signal that is not their own and users should abide by these laws. But absent these, I believe it is the Wi-Fi signal owner's responsibility to shut the door on others using his signal if he doesn't want them to.

One thing has changed since the last time I responded to a reader's question about using someone else's signal. At the time, I hadn't set up my own Wi-Fi signal as password protected. Now I do . . . because I'd rather not have visitor traffic slowing down my access. If you don't want others accessing your Wi-Fi signal, it's your responsibility not to invite them in by having an unsecured signal.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business, is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to

(c) 2010 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.


Patricia Clason said...

Not securing a wi-fi connection is the equivalent of putting out a buffet on the front lawn. People will stop to eat it if they are walking by just as people will use the wi-fi signal if they happen by and need a connection.

However, those people eating the buffet would not expect you to provide their food everyday. Nor should someone piggyback everyday on someone else's signal, that is theft of bandwidth.

I have often thought that it would be helpful if there were a way to be able to contact the wi-fi source to ask permission for that one-time temporary usage. However, for many security reasons, I doubt that will ever be possible.

In these days of phones with internet, this question will probably only apply to the passer-by or the too-poor-to-pay internet user.

Bill Jacobson said...

If it is wrong to use someone else's wifi access without permission on an ongoing basis, how can it then be right to use it on an occasional or even one-time basis? Are they not just different degrees of wrong? The latter use is relatively deminimus though so even though wrong, most people will not mind.

The secured versus unsecured concerns are a red herring. It is no more right to burgle your neighbor's house because he left the door unlocked than if he had locked it. A better analogy for wifi might be your neighbor's garden hose. Most neighbors won't mind if you fill a watering can from their water hose, even though it is a resource that they are paying for, but using their hose to water your lawn every couple of days is a problem. Both are wrong but the latter is higher degree of wrong that you are more likely to get called on.

William Jacobson
Cypress, CA

Anonymous said...

Bill Jacobson's analogy of using a neighbor's garden hose is hardly accurate. While picking up an unsecured signal may cause a slowdown of the owner's access, it will not cost him anything. Using the neighbor's water will run up the bill.

A better (though still flawed) analogy would be looking through a neighbor's un-curtained windows. If your window faces theirs, it is hardly invading their privacy to look in -- even on a regular basis. It is their responsibility, not yours, to put up curtains.

The flaw in my analogy is that accessing their signal doesn't mean that you are looking at their information. If you are using their signal to gain access to their system, you are breaking laws, and that's an entirely different question.

Bill Jacobson said...

In response to Anonymous, you have no way to know whether your neighbor is on an unlimited download account or not. While most DSL and cable services run unlimited plans, cellular and satellite services definitely do not - so your neighbor may well be paying substantially for your unauthorized access.

You are no more in the right to use your neighbor's wifi uninvited than you are to use their pool or rent out a room in their house without permission. It is easy to rationalize this taking but that does not make it any more right.

Bill Jacobson
Cypress, CA

Anonymous said...

As a plain old user of my private cable modem to access the internet and send and receive e-mails, I am a poor one to make comments about a technology (wi-fi) that is not even in my vocabulary. The persons who have commented have likened the unauthorized use of wi-fi availability "on the loose" as wrong as if stealing. To me, if something is out there in the atmosphere like a wi-fi signal and it is not protected by the owner, use it with my blessing. I would love to find out what Bill Jacobson means by use of one of these unprotected wi-fi signals being "relatively deminimus". That word "deminimus" is new to me, so Bill, please explain it to the great unwashed like me. Thanks!

Charlie Seng
Lancaster, SC

Bill Jacobson said...

Hi Charlie

Forgive me as my legal training sneaks in every once in a while... "de minimis" (I misspelled it!) is roughly "too small to be concerned with".

William Jacobson
Cypress, CA

Anonymous said...

To: Bill Jacobson, I assumed as much, but just didn't know for sure. Thanks for clarifying the word. But, in my view, your definition of de minimis kind of covers my opinion about using the "free" wi-fi signal, too minimal of a moral situation to be worried about.

Charlie Seng
Lancaster, SC