net.wars: Stealing wireless bandwidth

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 07 November 2003

There's that "Mad About You" exchange, which dealt with the moral problem of whether the character Jamie, having found that a New Jersey store had put an extra shirt in her bag, ought to take it back.

Wendy M Grossman

"So, it's bigger than a grape but smaller than a shirt."


"What you're allowed to steal."

That was television - this is Real life, circa 2003. I was staying with friends in an apartment building in a suburb of Philadelphia when I accidentally (truly: I turned on the laptop's wireless card to synch the Palm and it took me a while to realise that the reason it didn't work was that the laptop and Palm were finding an active access point instead of each other and that what had been my skinny little dial-up connection had become a big fat interstate highway) discovered a neighbour had an open wireless network and a broadband connection.

Friends, I went a little nuts for a few minutes. I had been away from my own broadband for several days by then, and was contorted into roughly the contours of a pretzel to get that dial-up. It's as though you're banging up and down in a pick-up truck on a badly maintained dirt road when all of a sudden up ahead you see a fork in the road with one side leading to a smooth, wide, flat expanse of open highway. Your pick-up truck becomes the Jaguar you left at home and you fly down as though let out of prison.

Until someone on your water-cooler IRC channel says, "I think what you're doing is stealing and wholly reprehensible" and you bump back to earth and remember that actually that road is privately owned even though there are no signs to tell you so, and that profligate use could get the owner, not you, in trouble. You throttle back to a slower speed and fewer trips.

None of this, however changes my friend's point of view: I am a scurrilous thief, and in the UK I'd be prosecutable under the Computer Misuse Act. The fact that many people do deliberately leave their access points open just so that others can use them was, in his view, irrelevant.

Our IRC channel is in fact evenly divided on the morality question: two condemn, two dissent. A bunch did not comment in my viewing. Elsewhere, everyone seems to feel that it's pretty trivial and that it's fine as long as I don't use the connection to do anything illegal. That's how I feel about it, too, and I can't tell whether this is a cultural difference: the IRC channel is all British, the others all Americans.

As for the neighbour, I took my WiFi enabled Palm, and used NetChaser and its helpful signal indicator to figure out which neighbour it was likely to be, and shoved a note under his door. Something like, "Hi. I'm staying with some people upstairs, and I think you must be the neighbour with the open wireless access point. I don't know if you realise that anyone can use your broadband connection, but I hope you won't mind that I've been using it to pick up my email."

And I enclosed my name and phone number to call for more information. They never called. So either a) they didn't mind; b) they never found the note; c) they were the wrong neighbour; or d) they thought I was too weird to phone.

One point the British friends raised was that in the past such "borrowings", when they involved modem connections, were sometimes prosecuted as theft of electricity. In this case, electricity was included in the rent. The Internet connection itself was a monthly flat-rate affair with a 2Gb/day cap.

It is obvious to me, though, that the wonderful situation we have now where you can find bandwidth to use to check your email on almost any street corner is bound to go the way of the open relay in another few years. That neighbour is taking two significant risks. First, that someone will sit invisibly trading copyrighted material that the RIAA/MPAA will eventually trace to her IP number, and two, that a high-tech burglar will sit watching her PCs go on and off and know when to break in and what there is to take.

In the case of a capped broadband service, your thief/freeloader/borrower could also push you over the daily limit and get you warned or even cut off.

But ten years from now -- and I admit I got the idea from realising the electricity was included in the rent -- I bet I'll be able to walk into an apartment in a building like this, pick up the building's wireless, and click to download the show I missed last night and it will all be perfectly legal. The broadband and wireless will be just another of the utilities included in the rent, like electricity, gas, and water are now. Some buildings in this area already do include wired broadband. The TV show will come from a subscription service and will be of guaranteed quality and integrity. (I imagine subscribing to, say, NBC for five weekly shows that I can chop and change at will. I also bet NBC will start making deals like, "We are so sure you'll love this show that we'll give you three trial episodes at no charge.")

Twenty years from now, who knows? But I expect Friends will be over by then.

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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).