On Computers: Is wireless Internet access borrowing or theft?

Jim Hillibish

Parasites stealing your wireless Internet service. It sounds so breathlessly investigative reporterness.

It depends on the user. Do you want to pay $44 a month for Internet service that your neighbor gets, steals or “borrows” for free? Somebody pays for it — the rest of us.

There’s a huge debate about the legality of this. “Borrowing” access remains a murky area, and liability has not been established.

Meanwhile, more of your neighbors are snatching access right out of your wireless router. So are businesses. As the price of network connection goes up, this gets worse. Jupiter Research says 14 percent of us borrow. The number is climbing as nearly all computers come with wireless. That’s all you need to log on to somebody’s network.

Internet networks once were weak, barely broadcasting the Net to computers across the room. Now they are powerful. A modern, Wireless “N” Network will reach for blocks. This makes signal borrowing a cinch.

A home wireless Internet network is like a radio station, and your computer is the radio receiver. It broadcasts Internet access to anybody with a wireless card. Most computers come with cards that scan for available networks. This makes borrowing simple.

If you do not bother to password protect your network access, it becomes public and accessible to all.

A protected system asks for a password for access. The password signals “no borrowing” to Net seekers.

Most users don’t protect their networks, not knowing how. Many more want to avoid typing yet another password.

The big debate: Is this theft?

According to the FCC, there’s no law banning connection to a public network. Internet providers losing money may think differently, but the Net is all about open communication.

There are rules that ban unauthorized access to a network. The current interpretation is not using password protection automatically grants permission.

The thought of someone using our computers sends chills. What if they hacked our systems and stole identity information? Software blocks these hackers, limiting the intruder to Net access and not your hard drive.

Not to say you cannot get into trouble “borrowing” Internet service. Time Warner sued the owner of a Manhattan condo for borrowing its service and then charging his neighbors for it.

If any of this bothers you, set up a password on your system and stop worrying already. Advice on that is in your router manual or search for technical advice on the Web.

Contact Jim Hillibish at