Tapping in

I am currently taking an IT ethics and law class Saturday afternoons at McMaster. It’s one of the courses that I need in order to get my Bachelor of Technology degree. From my first impression of the first day, it sounds like it’s going to be an interesting class. The profession did a good job at getting everyone in the class involved in a discussion. It got me started thing when we started a little discussion on what’s right and wrong. It turns out something that might be considered wrong can be right depending on how you look at it.

There’s something that I’ve been thinking about lately which revolves around ethics. It’s the act of connecting to an open wireless signal. There are two sides to this debate. One side will say that you’re stealing while the other side will say that you’re just borrowing. The two acts sounds like they’re on total opposite sides of the spectrum but once you get the debate started that line can become very thin. The difference between right and wrong comes down to the ideology of the individual.

I would like to argue the idea that accessing an unsecured wireless signal is not theft but gaining access to a secured signal is theft. For the sake of argument, let’s assume that the signal is wide open. Would you still consider that theft? I don’t think it’s theft.

The signal is wide open for anyone and everyone to use. There are no signs or warning that says “Private signal! Stay away!” It’s an unsecured signal and it’s there for the taking. The signal is being broadcast for everyone to see. If the owner did not want anyone else to connect to the access point, they should have made an attempt to secure the signal.

For example, when you’re driving around in your car, you tune into a radio station. That FM signal is being broadcast from some location and a specific frequency. Anyone who knows that frequency can tune in and listen to everything that is being said over the air. You’re not stealing that signal are you? No, I don’t think so. The hardware is only as generous as the person who configures it. If they did not configure to enable secure then it’s pretty much an open door policy.

If the wireless signal is unsecured, you’re technically asking for it to be used. A computer connecting to a wireless access point is not going to know that it’s against the law to connect to an access point which doesn’t belong to the owner of the computer. The computer simply searches for a nearby access point, requests access and connect. If the wireless route grants access to the computer, you’re in.

Wireless routers have been around long for people to know the importance of securing their signal. Buying a router, plugging it in and browsing the internet without taking further steps to secure the signal pretty much says, “Come on in and make yourself at home.”

I think in the end, ethically it’s wrong and therefore yes, it is considered stealing but at the same time, the access point is there and it’s just sitting there waiting for a connection. Again, like I’ve said before, it’s a fine line between the two and any justification can lead you to any side argument. It comes down to what you as a person think about the matter. Personally, I don’t think it’s stealing if the access point is broadcasting and unsecured. If I found $20 on the sidewalk, I am not going to waste my time trying to track down the owner to ask if they wanted it back.

What say you?

2 replies on “Tapping in”

  1. The crux of the issue, simply put, is whether the operator has a reasonable expectation of private-use with an unsecured network. The answer for a lot of older folk or less tech savvy people is they simply do not grasp what wireless security is. They expect – analogously to their household cordless phone – that you plug it in, and your neighbors can’t jack your line.

    This is a grey area though. How much harm are you causing by plugging into an unsecured network and not doing anything illegal? Not much. Download a movie though and you’re in jerk territory.

  2. I think that the internet has become such a common place these days that most people are just looking for a connection to do simple things such as checking their Facebook. I agree that it is a grey area and downloading a movie would be crossing the line but these days, people just want access to the internet to get updates. When you dig down deeper and deeper and finely tune the definition of theft, I’m sure that in the end connecting to an open wireless signal is theft.

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