When celebrity computer security guru Bruce Schneier posted on his blog in early 2008 that he runs an unprotected open wireless network at home, he shocked his followers and renewed a conversation about the role wireless networks should and already does play in society. There are both security and legal dangers of leaving your wireless network open for anyone to use, and many were brought up against Schneier’s policy. I discussed some of these in my presentation last Friday, but as a refresher and to go further:
- Running an open wireless network provides an easy target to hackers. Although WPA2 provides minimal protection from anyone determined to get in, simply having it on deters hackers, who are more likely to take the path of least resistance and hack the unprotected network nearby instead.
- Government agencies and others such as the RIAA usually track illegal online activities by IP address. If someone uses your open wireless network for illegal purposes, these organizations will come after you first – sometimes with extreme prejudice.
- In some states (such as New York), laws governing the “unauthorized access of a network” require that the computer being accessed without authorization be equipped with some preventative measures for it to count as unauthorized access.
- Many ISPs consider it a breach of contract to share bandwidth with other users and prohibit this in their terms of service. The EFF has a list of ISPs who do not.
- Users of open wireless networks are at a heightened risk of having their information tracked and intercepted as well as their wireless devices hacked unless they have taken adequate precautions. Even requiring a password that is made widely available (such as through signage or by naming the network “password is ____”) is substantially more secure due to the way WPA2 encrypts sessions.
Because of these risks, many wireless network owners are choosing to lock down their networks even though they may be fine with others using the network, and open wireless networks are starting to become more rare even as the number of wireless access points continues to increase. The EFF has recently called for an Open Wireless Movement to counteract this trend and develop a solution that is both open and secure.
It seems likely that the security risks, at least, are not insuperable, and laws could be written more sensibly to reflect the realities and social norms in a ubiquitous open wireless world of automatically connecting devices. What interests me though are the many analogies present in the current debates across the blogosphere arguing for and against sharing or “piggybacking” on others’ open wireless networks (here are just a few examples discussing the Schneier piece).
Indeed, this seems to be such a common phenomenon that the Wikipedia article on piggybacking includes some of these examples from both sides. If you are an advocate of open wireless networks, you might say it’s like “using a drinking fountain” or “reading from the light of a porch light or streetlamp.” If you are opposed, you might say it’s the same as “entering a home just because the door is unlocked” or “hanging on to the outside of a bus to obtain a free ride.” Apart from the imaginativeness of these scenarios, what strikes me is how very different they are from one another. In addition to making it technically secure and legally feasible, the third success factor the Open Wireless Movement needs in order to work is favorable social norms. Yet we cannot even seem to agree what using an open wireless signal is “like.” Although some might argue that this is a minor issue given that existing social norms are already far more in favor of open wireless than other issues such as copyright infringement, I think it is important to establish a useful metaphor because this is the way the public generally thinks about ethical quandaries: through analogy and story. We see this in nearly every modern debate –is illegally sharing music like stealing the bread right out of starving musicians’ mouths or is it more like providing free advertising for them? – and often changing the prevailing social norms has meant getting people to think about these activities as “like” one thing rather than the other. Certainly the opponents of the Open Wireless Movement are already trying this tactic: equating, for example, piggybacking to theft (hmm, where have we seen this kind of reasoning before?).
So, in closing, I would like to leave you with my argument for “what using open wireless is like.” Although I disagree with the Sophos article’s depiction of it as theft, I also disagree with some of the proponents of the Open Wireless Movement who have likened it to reading by streetlight or sitting in a chair in public. As much as I agree with the goals of the Open Wireless Movement, using an open wireless signal is not entirely the same as, say, copying and distributing a file, where the original is left completely intact and does not degrade. By using wireless bandwidth you are in fact using some portion of the network owner’s bandwidth: if you use it heavily and as a result the network owner goes over their allotted monthly bandwidth limit or has their own use of the network degraded, there has been a cost associated with your use. However, most people using open wireless networks, whether through their smart phones on the go or on a laptop at a local café, are using a negligible amount of the bandwidth most of the time. And I think the prevailing social norms reflect that: if I am spending several hours on my neighbor’s network downloading some huge 100+ gigabyte file it seems like I am abusing my neighbor’s hospitality in providing this open service. Because of this I think the drinking fountain analogy works particularly well to describe an open wireless access point. Clearly, the intended use of a public drinking fountain is to provide a small amount of water to people who are thirsty and far from other drinking sources or cannot afford one. The water supply is limited (or at least costs someone extra if it is excessively used), but as long as I’m not filling up dozens of several gallon jugs or spending all day on the fountain preventing others from using it, we generally think this is okay because the negligible costs of providing the service are offset by the utility of having free water fountains widely available. And just as drinking fountains do not greatly reduce the number of people who are likely to pay for water utilities, I find no sympathy for the arguments made on behalf of those poor, unfortunate ISPs who are losing potential customers because of open wireless networks. If customers want to share the bandwidth they pay for, that seems to me to be their prerogative, and by doing so they render a service that most of us find extremely useful and is essential for many of the mobile web application markets that have started to emerge to function.