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Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Wi-Fi Piggybacking / Squatting Reconsidered
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The Times of London recently reported that a London man had been arrested “on suspicion of illegally logging on to a wireless (Wi-Fi) broadband connection.”

Two officers saw the 39-year-old man sitting on a garden wall outside a home in Chiswick, West London. When questioned he admitted using the homeowner’s unsecured broadband connection from his position on the wall. He was arrested and the case was passed to the Metropolitan Police Computer Crime Unit. He was bailed to return in October and faces a fine or a jail term of six months, or both.

Detective Constable Mark Roberts gave warning that anyone caught illegally “hitching” or “piggy-backing” on to another’s wireless broadband connection could face arrest. “This arrest should act as a warning to anyone who thinks it is acceptable to illegally use other people’s broadband connections,” he said. “To do so potentially breaches the Computer Misuse Act and the Communications Act, so computer users need to be aware that this is unlawful and police will investigate any violation we become aware of.”

[The Wall Street Journal’s excellent business technology blogger Ben Worthen wrote about the case here and there are some really excellent comments following that story that you should check out.]

Over on the Tech Liberation Front blog, my blogging colleague Tim Lee has written about this issue before in an essay entitled “In Defense of Piggybacking.” In that piece, which he later turned into a New York Times editorial, Tim argued that:

"…there’s absolutely nothing wrong with connecting to an unprotected network. True, it’s rude to saturate someone else’s pipe with massive downloads. But for casual Internet use—web browsing, email, or instant messaging—the bandwidth used is trivial. While it might seem weird or creepy to people not very familiar with the practice, once they become more familiar with it, I think people will realize how harmless it is."

While I don’t believe anyone should be arrested for wireless piggybacking, I’m not sure I agree entirely with Tim’s view of things either since there may be some real harms that come to both users and service providers from uninhibited piggybacking / wireless squatting. Let me explain.

First, let me state that as a practical matter, there’s an easy solution to this whole mess from both an end-user and service provider perspective. Users can just lock down their networks, of course, and then largely take comfort in the fact that almost no one is going to take the time to hack into their system. As Tim noted in his essay, “Setting a wireless network password isn’t that hard” and even though most current generation wi-fi encryption has been cracked, it’s still probably good enough to serve as a reasonable deterrent.

Second, broadband providers could incentivize users to take steps to better secure their systems. One way to do so would be to better educate consumers about computer security / privacy. In-home installations or house calls by the service provider could even include the offer of wi-fi security set-up. A more controversial solution would be for broadband providers to meter pipe usage over a certain cap. That way, if squatters were sucking up tons of bandwidth on your pipe, you’d find out about it pretty quickly when you got your monthly bill and you would likely take steps to ensure they were excluded from your pipe. Or, in the case that you knew them, you might be able to convince them to pay for their share of the cost of monthly service.

But this really gets to the heart of my concern about the issue and it is where I find myself disagreeing a bit with Tim. Certainly there is some small cost associated with every use of a broadband pipe. It is difficult to measure that cost, of course, because networks are not like pencils. The economics are very different. Still, there are costs associated with all network usage and uses, no matter how marginal those costs may be at times.

Tim’s essay noted that most piggybacking today is probably of the casual variety. I would agree. Admit it, you’ve done it too! You’ve tapped into somebody else’s network to check your e-mail, an eBay auction, or your blog. Well, at least that’s why I have piggybacked in the past!

But while such casual use is likely representative of most piggybacking it is not necessarily representative of all piggybacking. Clearly, there are some people who piggyback for significant periods of time, sometimes even accidentally. Indeed, I will admit that there have been times when I have been on the road and piggybacked on someone’s network with the intention of just quickly checking my e-mail only to later suddenly realize I’d been online for an hour! That’s hardly casual use. But is it “harmful” use? Am I engaging in a “harmful trespass” on someone’s private wi-fi network when I spend an hour on it versus two minutes. Should the length or purpose of the use determine the “harm” or lack thereof?

What really makes me wonder about this now more than ever is that several people in my neighborhood have, like me, joined the “Pre-N” wi-fi generation, which allows for much wider area coverage. I have a wonderful little wi-fi radar on my Toshiba laptop that detects all the wireless networks in range and maps them for me according to capability (B, G, N) and accessibility (locked or unlocked). The map is intriguing. I can drive down any road in the area and watch networks bounce in and out of range as if they were planes on an air traffic control system.

But what’s really interesting about the radar is how I’ve used it to watch wi-fi spread in my own neighborhood and seen the overall “footprint” grow to encompass almost all 15 homes on my block. The new “N” standard routers have been a big part of that. I can tell you exactly when anyone on my street gets a new pre-N router because suddenly their SSID pops up on my radar, and it’s usually completely unsecured. Pretty soon, we’ll have the accidental equivalent of a muni wi-fi network in my little neighborhood thanks to the existence of a few unsecured pre-N routers at select points along the block!

One might ask: What’s wrong with that? In fact, Tim argued in his essay that “some people might make their network connections available to the world on purpose, as a neighborly gesture.” True, but many others do not intend to do so. Again, if they didn’t intend to invite others share their service on occasion, they should have taken steps to lock down their networks. But if they didn’t take those steps and someone abused that fact by squatting on their network and engaging in massive downloading activities, do they have any right of action at all against the “intruder.”

But here’s a really interesting question: What if my entire neighborhood got together and agreed to share wi-fi as a “neighborly gesture.” I could easily devise the plan for my homeowner’s association. I’d identify 4 or 5 key spots along the block where we would need the homeowner to install a pre-N router. Then, all the homeowners could chip into a “piggyback piggybank.” The 4 or 5 homeowners with pre-N routers could just connect to the 15 meg service that Cox offers in our neighborhood or the 30 meg service the Verizon offers via FIOS.

The problem, of course, is that this represents theft of service from a carrier perspective. And that’s not because the cable and telco operators are just a bunch of greedy bastards. It’s because they have a legitimate business problem on their hands if they were to go around digging holes and laying high-speed lines to everyone’s homes only to see many people share it with everyone else as a “neighborly gesture.” The fixed costs associated with a capital-intensive industry like this are enormous and it’s highly unlikely that Verizon or Cox or anyone else would ever wire a neighborhood for next-generation broadband if they didn’t have some reasonable expectation of getting a return on that investment in the long-term.

This is the other reason I believe that uninhibited piggybacking is not completely without harm / consequences. If we want those networks to get built we have to understand that unlimited network sharing has to carry some consequences. That’s why it is probably necessary to find ways to deter the most egregious uses. Again, no one has any real problem with a little casual use at the margins, but my point here is that not everything takes place at the margin on a “casual” basis. Some piggybacking activities impose real costs and could result in real harm. That harm might be direct to the user in the form of rising monthly bills, termination of service, or computer corruption / other privacy loses. Alternatively, that harm could be longer-term and more indirect in nature, as would be the case if broadband operators refused to provide next-generation services for fear of the inability to recoup the significant sunk investments it entails.

So, I’ll wrap up by returning to the sticky question of whether there should ever be a time when anyone is arrested for wi-fi piggybacking? Well, I’m a non-interventionist, pacifistic, libertarian sort of guy who rarely likes the idea of anyone ever being arrested for non-coercive crimes of any sort. So perhaps I’m the wrong guy to be answering that question!

Nonetheless, if you clearly and egregiously bring harm to someone by trespassing on their private property, I can see a role for government. In the case of wireless piggybacking, however, I would want to see it limited to only the most extreme cases. Even in those cases, however, I don’t think jail time is appropriate. I’d rather just see the homeowner or the broadband provider sue the guy for damages and make him pay his fair share of the bill that he racked up or pay for any real harm he had done, if it could be proven in court.

And, again, a little consumer education and healthy dose of metered broadband pricing will probably solve this problem in the long run.

Now, please excuse me while I go post this essay to our blog by tapping into my neighbor’s wi-fi network. (No, just kidding!)

posted by Adam Thierer @ 11:11 PM | Broadband , Communications , Innovation , Spectrum

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