MICRO CENTER: COMPUTERS AND ELECTRONICS
Random Access   chris, kp & rob
In The Lab
Does Open Mean Free?
by rob

If you live in a major metropolitan area, or next to someone with a wireless router, you may be used to a list of open wireless access points in your list of connections. Can you, should you, use these connections? Sure, using a wireless connection that is not yours is cheap, but is it legal, safe, or morally right?

There are no specific laws on the books yet that make picking up an open wireless connection illegal, only vague references in the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. To be on sound legal ground, it is a good idea to only use wireless connections you are authorized to use (your own connection or an open hotspot at a cafe, airport, hotel, school, library, etc.)

If you connect to your neighbor's open wireless connection, one that may not be protected against hackers, you'll be as vulnerable as your neighbor. Whether you are using a secure or open connection, you still need to think about security. When accessing any network, you should always use a firewall to keep out prying eyes as well as virus protection. See the Random Access article about wireless hotspots for a quick rundown of what you need to do to protect yourself.

Should you use for free what your neighbor pays for? That's up to you. It may be easier on your conscience to talk to your neighbor about their wireless security. By helping your neighbor secure their connection, they may opt to share that connection with you. It may still be forbidden by your neighbor's broadband provider to share any connection. Your neighbor will need to check the wording of their contract – should they choose to share.

To answer the "can you, should you" question: The ability of hardware and software to see open networks makes "can you" easy to do. But due to the legal ambiguities and security risks, we don't recommend you using a wireless connection that you're not authorized to use or a connection that you don't know is secure.

For those of you that have a wireless router and want to secure it against neighbors or WAR drivers, check out our article about sharing a wireless internet connection.

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