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Last Updated: Thursday, 23 August 2007, 12:54 GMT 13:54 UK
Is stealing wireless wrong?
Graphic

By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

A man has been arrested after being spotted allegedly sitting in a street with a laptop using someone else's unsecured wireless connection. Is it immoral to do this?

So here's the thing.

You're walking down the street in Hypotheticalville and in front of you is a gentleman who, when he walks, spills seemingly endless torrents of golden coins on to the pavement behind him.

He seems unconcerned by this and you notice that if not picked up, these magic coins quickly evaporate. Is it moral for you to pick a few up?

It's the kind of tree-falls-in-the-forest whimsy that an undergraduate philosopher might mull over for a moment, but back in the real world a not entirely dissimilar debate is being played out.

The man arrested in a street in west London is at least the third person to be accused of breaching the law by taking internet service without permission.

The Communications Act 2003 says a "person who (a) dishonestly obtains an electronic communications service, and (b) does so with intent to avoid payment of a charge applicable to the provision of that service, is guilty of an offence".

It is a bit like reading your book from the light coming out from someone's window
Julian Baggini
Philosopher

There are also suggestions using somebody else's wireless could come under the Computer Misuse Act, usually used to combat hacking and electronic fraud.

But if it can be interpreted as illegal, can it be truly said to be immoral?

Heavy downloading might affect the unsecured person's speed of access or download limit, but a use like checking an e-mail is hardly likely to be noticed. Most "victims" will suffer no loss.

Philosopher Nick Bostrom, director of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University, says with technology moving rapidly, socially-accepted moral positions can be slow to solidify.

Warchalking
Warchalking identified open wireless networks for those in the know

"I haven't thought about it. I'm not sure anybody has. It might be one of those areas where cultural norms haven't evolved or stabilised yet. It's so new it's not clear whether it's stealing or not. And sometimes the law trails public norms.

"If you steal a silver Mont Blanc pen it's theft but if it's an ordinary ballpoint pen or a pencil it is assumed you can take it.

"In the olden days people had norms about whether you were able to pick apples from someone else's tree. Perhaps it's OK if the branches hang over the road, but not from inside their garden. You have generally shared expectations."

In 2002 Matt Jones, the original designer of the BBC News website, devised "warchalking" with a group of friends. These chalk symbols on walls and pavements showed those in the know where free wireless internet was.

Freeloaders v borrowers

Among the sternest critics of the concept was Nokia, who months later said: "This is theft, plain and simple."

But they were worried about users congregating near an open network and slowing it down, as much as by the ethical considerations. For one person checking an e-mail on a hardly-stretched home connection, the issue might seem different.

Philosopher Julian Baggini says he can't see what all the fuss is about.

"I'm pro the stealers on this one. If you are doing it systematically to avoid chipping in your bit you are a freeloader and that's immoral.

Are they going to prosecute someone who stands outside a bakery warming their hands?
Barry Fox
Technology writer

"But casual and occasional use while travelling is a bit like reading your book from the light coming out from someone's window. It's like eating someone's leftovers."

And he's happy to practise what he preaches.

"I've done it and I don't put a password on my own connection. For all I know that's what someone's doing now.

"But the fact that something is morally acceptable doesn't change the fact of its illegality. The rule of law is an important factor."

Freeloading is unacceptable, but the whole notion of a crackdown on the theft of something that won't be missed shows up an increasingly possessive society.

ISP victims

"We are really obsessed with things being ours or mine. But there are things that can be shared."

An internet service provider (ISP) might argue it is the victim of wireless theft. If people could use other people's wireless, why buy their own?

The idea of "piggybacking" off somebody else's system harks back to the dawn of the internet and the phone phreaking - gaining free calls by cracking the systems - that inspired many technology pioneers.

Man with computer
There's nothing wrong in a little al fresco surfing is there?

Now, of course, the morality of technology is a matter for mainstream discourse.

Barry Fox, contributing editor for Europe Consumer Electronics Daily, says unsecured networks are getting fewer and fewer, but the real moral issue is why computer firms don't take more responsibility for their customers' security.

"When I'm in London I'm in a block of flats, I scan and find unsecured networks. When I first started there were any number of free and unsecured networks, now it's mainly secured networks because many of the ISPs have made it much easier.

"There is a view that if people are daft enough to throw their signal out for anyone to pick up they deserve what they get.

"On the other hand, the computer manufacturers have never done anything to make things easier for the consumer, unless forced to."

The risk of one's computer being hacked or used for malicious purposes is not a fiction, and is the reason that many people insist on securing their wireless connections.

Firework display

But Barry Fox finds it hard to see how a non-invasive use of someone else's signal is a serious crime. "If the person was trying to infect a computer or steal data, that's one thing. But are they going to prosecute someone who stands outside a bakery warming their hands? It is like watching someone else's firework display."

There will be many people who would be outraged to find someone nicking their wireless. The water cooler ethicists may be split down the middle for some time.

But, as Bostrom notes, more attention will bring debates and eventually an accepted norm.

"Maybe with this arrest somebody will want to write a paper on it," he says.


Below is a selection of your comments:

If the wireless owner has not asked for nor expects a payment for use of their broadband and you have not broken into the system but have connected through normal means then I cannot see how you have either "dishonestly" obtained a service nor avoided any payment. Securing your wireless network is clearly recommended in the instructions so I see no reason not to imply that an open network is open for public use. If you don't want people to use your connection: don't broadcast your SSID, secure the connection and/or switch off DHCP.
Gareth, Wetherby

I have not asked, nor do I particularly want to be irradiated by the wireless networks from my neighbours - I can pick up about a dozen. If it enters my house, I should be able to do with it what I want. Don't like it? Get wired!
Gerard, Naarden, Holland

Yes - it's wrong. warming your hands outside the bakery is not the same as standing outside someone's house stealing expensive bandwidth. the bandwidth we pay for is a commodity and as such has an entire value - if someone uses a portion of your bandwidth they are in fact stealing from you. it doesn't take place after you've finished, it takes place as you're using the service. that's the same as some chap sitting down at your table and eating off your plate as you eat. are you okay with that?
Simon, Houston, TX

The rich neighbour found his poor neighbour salivating outside of his kitchen window from the aroma of his food. The rich neighbour demanded payment for the smell of the food. The poor neighbour took some coins from his pocket and said: "I'll pay for the smell of your food with the sound of counting my money".
Tony, Milwaukee WI USA

I think Ibrahim, Bob and Dominic have the right idea. I think if you see someone using the internet and they are not able to provide you with a receipt, then we should phone the police safe in the knowledge that they are likely to be a paedophile who is trying to think of a way to steal your television by flooding your house using the water that they stole from your taps.
Andrew, Edinburgh

The attitude that, if you leave your house or car unlocked you should not complain if it is burgled or stolen is depressing. Theft is theft however the victim behaves and is never their fault. Similarly using someone else's connection is theft unless they have made it clear they are willing to share it.
Alan, Bath, UK

Do you know if someone has a limited or unlimited supply? No. It has the potential to be stealing - so is wrong.
Anon, London

I have used my daft neighbours wifi connection in the past, but I took a guess at the router login and managed to get in to the administration part. I had a look who else had been accessing his wifi and about half the street had been using is because I recognised their names on the connection list.
Glenn Jones, oxford

The "open front door" analogy is correct, but it's not like stealing the TV - which results in significant loss to the property owner. It is much more like walking in, taking a look at the pictures on the wall, sitting on the sofa for a few minutes, watching a bit of TV, and then walking out again leaving everything perfectly intact. I really can't believe that the police would spend a lot of time pursuing people who trespassed in this way as criminals. I totally agree with the permission argument - if you set up your wireless network without any security you should be deemed to have allowed access to all comers.
Andrew, Berkeley, California

In this case the TV is not being stolen, the real analogy is someone comes in ( enters without breaking!) and turns on the TV to watch. Sure this is annoying, but I am sure the police would only come to remove the person from your house, not prosecute them. Although if you asked them to leave (i.e. secured the network) all but real thieves would leave you alone.
Lee, Leicester

Does it matter if Richard Branson, BT or any other major corporate company doesn't get a few more pounds? If someone wants to share then fine, if you're a bit odd and aren't interested, then put a password on it. Don't give me the 'I'm paying, so why should someone else get something out of it' argument either.
Richard, Nottingham

It's not remotely like reading your book from the light coming from someone's window"! Shows how little he understands of broadband. What nonsense. What if you pay to have a water supply piped to your house, and pay a monthly service fee, and perhaps even get metered on your water usage - and then someone secretly taps into your water pipe?

You're paying - they are stealing. That simple. The assumption of the writer is that the broadband access is un-metered, which may not be the case. There's no such thing as 'non-invasive' use if someone else is paying to get the service provided and you are just freeloading.
Dominic, oxford

Freeloading and proud of it. I just hope the person downstairs doesn't read this.
Bob, Bobsland

"If you steal a silver Mont Blanc pen it's theft but if it's an ordinary ballpoint pen or a pencil it is assumed you can take it." Not where I come from! Stealing a pencil is just as bad as stealing a silver pen!
John Collins, Warwick

I agree with Adrian's 'reading over the shoulder' analogy, I think it is perfectly acceptable to use someone else's wi-fi. In response to Ibrahim, it would not matter what the person was doing with your connection, that has no bearing on where the signal came from. Everyone who has a problem with this should lighten up and learn to share a little more, collective wi-fi provision would be cheaper for everyone anyway, and a lot less socially divisive.
Ciaran, London

When you connect to a wifi access point you ask for permission, and depending on what the access point has been told to do, you are either granted permission or not. Thus if the access point as been setup to grant permission to everyone, you are entitled to believe you are allowed to use it. The courts are wrong in this matter and the individuals who setup their access points incorrectly are at fault. Ignorance or stupidity are no excuse to blame others.
Ian Smith, London, UK

I don't really see how it can be "stealing" if the person who paid still has all of what they paid for. In that respect, it's not like your example of taking an apple from the overhanging branch of a tree. More like reading someone's newspaper over their shoulder on the Tube (maybe that will be next...?) "Unauthorised use" maybe, but surely not "stealing".
Adrian, Manchester, UK

If the ISPs in the UK weren't so money-grabbing, then perhaps people wouldn't be tempted to poach unsecured wifi. On continental Europe, free public wifi access is the norm. There's none of this "pay 6 for an hour" nonsense like in the UK (Heathrow being a prime culprit). We've just been on holiday to Switzerland, where the village had at least 3 (and they were just the ones we found on our first attempt) free wifi hotspots for public use. We were able to check our emails and look up train times etc. whenever we wanted to.
Jessica Gooch, Harrow

Haven't the police got more important crimes to resolve? What a disgusting waste of taxes! They're always bleating they haven't got the manpower to solve real issues?!
Mike, Cambridge

Lets try a different analogy. If someone leaves their front door wide open is it wrong to go in a steal the television?
Bob, London

If you leave your wireless connection unsecured then it is your own fault. Just as you wouldn't leave your front door unlocked, neither should you leave your wireless connection open. In fact cafes and other public spaces leave their wireless open so customers can access it. So by leaving your wireless open, you are effectively inviting people to use it. It's as easy as clicking a few settings on your router to secure your network. Those who leave their connections open have as little right to complain as somebody who parks their car and then leaves the door wide open.
Ken, Evesham

Is leaving your car running and open inviting someone to take it for a spin? Of course not, but what kind of a doughnut would you be for doing it?
Steve, Cambridge

The biggest problem comes from people using next door's wireless signal for one's own- that's not al fresco surfing, that's long-term stealing. As for finding a quick wireless spot for free in a city hotel, that is short term and hence should not be so quickly frowned upon.
Tom, Portsmouth, UK

What if the person who was 'stealing' your internet connection was involved in illegal activity such as child pornography....bakery warming the hands? this is more like a pickpocket warming in hands in your trousers.
Ibrahim, derby

In a certain far-off country, potatoes are so cheap that no one buys them as they need: they simply have a load delivered every day, and the ones they don't need they leave out in the street. what can be the harm in picking them up and taking them home?
Nick Arrow, Leeds




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