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Mobile Guru: The price of free wireless

Is piggybacking on an unsecured wireless network downright stealing? Or is more like reading a magazine someone has purchased and left in a public place?

Mobile Guru: The price of free wireless

A notebook with Wi-Fi gives you the means to surf the net for free but surely somebody is footing the bill.

Wi-Fi is pretty much a standard inclusion on any notebook these days and wireless networks -- both secured and unsecured -- can be found all over the place.

Recently, during an overseas trip in the US, I experienced how easy (and common) it is to find such networks. Staying in a backpacker's hostel in Los Angeles, I thought I'd use the (wired) Internet terminals available to touch base with friends, colleagues and family. After feeding a small wad of dollar bills into a slot to try and get an Internet terminal to work, I realised my efforts were in vain as the computer sat there telling me I hadn't inserted any money at all.

Fed up and frustrated I headed up to my room to draft some e-mails on a notebook computer with the intention of sending them when a wired connection was available. Looking out the window, I noticed a few other people sitting in windowsills with notebook computers furiously typing away at keyboards. Switching on the notebook's wireless card, I was both shocked and elated that twelve wireless networks were available, five of which were unsecured.

Now, it might have been that there were five kind people in the area who were willing to share their Internet connection with skint backpackers in the hostel. Most likely however, five people (or companies) had purchased a wireless router for their home/office network, not read the instruction manual and forgot to turn on Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP) security.

While it is surprising that so many people are oblivious to this kind of piggybacking on their Internet connection, it definitely comes in handy when there is no alternative -- as the dozen or so backpackers in the hostel using the Wi-Fi networks were testimony to.

It's doubtful that this group of people had identity theft in mind and they didn't seem to be hardcore hackers tip-toeing around corporate networks looking to commit industrial espionage. More likely they just needed to send an email or two and get on with their travels.

The ethics of the situation is debatable. While some would consider that not paying for a service you are using is plain stealing, others could argue that having an unsecured wireless network is an open invitation for people to use what is accessible. Although we're not sure how the latter argument holds up. If you leave your front door open, does that mean you are inviting people to use whatever they can find in your house?

Another interesting device that caught my eye waiting for a flight was Intego's WiFi locator, a pocket-sized gadget you can carry around to spot wireless networks at the click of a button. It has four LEDs which scour airwaves for 802.11b and 802.11g networks and displays a rating out of four bars representing signal strength. So you can just wander down the street, around an airport, around the city sniffing for a connection to a wireless LAN.

What do you think? Is piggybacking on an unsecured wireless network downright stealing? Or is akin to reading a magazine someone has purchased and left in a public place? Have your say below.