I received this question from one of my readers and thought it was good fodder for an article. Question: “I don’t have Internet access at my apartment but my notebook automatically connects to the Internet through a nearby wireless signal. I sometimes use it to check my email. How legal is that?”
There are laws that could be used to charge you with unauthorized computer use. But if your neighbor’s router is not password protected he would find it difficult to make a case that his intent was to keep everyone off his network Are you trespassing on your neighbor’s wireless connection or is your neighbor’s wireless connection trespassing on your notebook? Perhaps your neighbor is simply being generous by sharing his connection.
I think you know that what you’re doing is perhaps a little larcenous no matter what the law says but if you stick to surfing the Web and not your neighbor’s PC, you'll probably be safe from prosecution.
Your neighbor, on the other hand, may eventually pay a price for his ignorance. First, it is a violation of his internet provider’s agreement to share bandwidth so he stands a chance of getting cut off by his ISP. Secondly, it is fairly easy for a hacker to capture unsecured wireless-network traffic and view e-mail messages, log-in passwords and hijack identities. This traffic includes YOUR traffic so your computer and identity is just as vulnerable as his. Thirdly, anyone within 150 feet or so can use his connection to share copyrighted material or other types of illegal material. If the RIAA, MPAA or FBI ever traces this criminal activity back to the source, the “source” will be the person who owns wireless router -- not the criminal.
There are fourthly, fifthly and tenthly warnings I could mention if I had the column space but these few should convince you to commit wireless piracy with caution. If your neighbor really wants to share his bandwidth, he should at least enable the password feature of the router then hand out that password to those he wants to share with. There are many other security features that should be enabled but this one measure will prevent most amateur moochers from stealing bandwidth.
Perhaps your best bet is to be a good neighbor by tracking him down using the signal strength meter on your notebook and inform him that he is broadcasting his entire digital life to the neighbors. Be his hero by offering to secure his router in exchange for a little bandwidth from time to time.