The wireless disconnect

I NEVER thought I was cut out for a life of crime. I even felt guilty when I accidentally stole a Subbuteo catalogue, thinking it was free. But everyone has an inner rebel, and mine has finally found a natural outlet. My crime of choice is that with a heart as cold as ice and no care for what society thinks, I steal wireless computer network time. Take that, Jesse James.

By Julian Baggini

Published: Sun 18 Nov 2007, 8:23 AM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 1:30 AM

It hardly sounds hardcore, but bastions of the establishment such as the Times are telling us that it is a serious offence. Indeed, 11 people have been arrested for using other people's wireless broadband connection. Wireless piggybacking is, of course, illegal. And there are occasions when it is clearly morally wrong: if, for instance, you systematically use your neighbour's connection without contributing to the cost, you are obviously receiving a benefit without paying your fair share.

However, most people who piggyback do so only from time to time, to check email when away from home. This is a truly victimless crime, like reading by the light cast from an open window or warming your hands on a building's air vent. So why all the fuss? Most of the reasons given are spurious -- such as the idea that people can piggyback to download child porn. It's possible, but the misdemeanour is downloading porn, not using the wireless signal. It is the end that is wrong, not the means.

And it's not only the piggybackers who are being vilified. Those of us who do not secure our wireless network connections and thus allow the thieves to have their evil way are accused of being grossly irresponsible. This argument usually blurs the distinction between not securing your connection and not securing your computer. Last month it was widely reported that the WEP system of encryption was "broken", with a security expert warning that "even your kid sister can easily circumvent it". Never mind the slur against kid sisters, if you have decent firewalls and security packages on your computer, the fact that someone can use your wireless signal doesn't mean they can access your files or hard drive.

But it is the combination of paedophiles, porn and wireless theft that causes the most concern. Many will be prepared to bite that bullet, for what this furore shows is how much we are prepared to allow our behaviour to be dictated by our worst fears. We are warned, for instance, that someone could use our wireless connections for illegal activities that the police could trace to our account. Not only is this very unlikely to happen, but also you couldn't be prosecuted because the crimes were committed by the hacker, not you. But the mere existence of a small risk of becoming involved in a nasty investigation could be enough to make you fearfully close down your wireless connection.

This negative, paranoid attitude is displacing the more optimistic, open ethos that the internet once promised to promote. Not so long ago people seriously proposed creating city-wide hotspots simply by lots of people coming together and leaving their wireless connections open. It was possible, desirable and generous of spirit. Now we would rather increase our level of self-protection, no matter how marginally. It's just another indication of how excessive risk-aversion is making us lock our doors to outsiders, literally and metaphorically. Instead of showing strangers kindness and giving them the benefit of the doubt, we increasingly show them only fear, and that is bad for us and them.

The Guardian

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