Another “Piggybacking” Story

CNN reports on another example of police hysteria over “wireless theft.” Stories like this seem to pop up every few months: somebody parks their car on a residential street, opens up his laptop, and uses it to access a wireless network that’s not protected by a password. Then the police come along and arrest the guy. In the two cases reported in this story, both of which occurred in the UK, the police let them off with a warning. But in 2005, a guy was fined 500 pounds and placed on probation for a year for “stealing” Internet access.

As I argued in an op-ed last year, this is silly. Accessing someone else’s wireless network, especially for casual activities like checking your email, is the very definition of a victimless crime. I’ve done the same thing on numerous occasions, and I deliberately leave my wireless network open in the hopes that it will prove useful to my neighbors.

The only concrete harm opponents of “piggy-backing” can come up with is that the piggy-backer might commit a crime, such as downloading pirated content or child pornography, with your connection. But remember that there are now thousands of coffee shops, hotels, and other commercial locations that offer free WiFi access, and most of them don’t make any effort to verify identities or monitor usage. So someone who wants to get untraceable Internet access can go to any one of those establishments just as well as they can park outside your house.

Which isn’t to say that there are no reasons people might not want to share their network connections with the world. If sharing your Internet access creeps you out, by all means set a password. And there’s almost certainly work to be done educating users so that people are fully informed of the risks and know how to close their network if they want to do so.

But arresting people for logging into an open network is completely counterproductive. Ubiquitous Internet access is socially useful, and the vast majority of “piggy-backers” aren’t doing anything wrong. If you see someone parked on the street outside your home using your wireless network, you shouldn’t pick up the phone and call the cops. Instead, call your geeky nephew and ask him to set a password for your network. Or, even better, do nothing and consider it your good deed for the day.