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Where and Why We Wi-Fi


We usually make our daughters take the bus to school, given that their school's halfway across the county. But yesterday My Lovely Wife graciously agreed to drive them. They hadn't gotten far when Beatrice, our sophomore, realized she had meant to download 10 images from the Web for use in an art project. Could Mom turn around now, please?

No, Mom couldn't. Or wouldn't. But Beatrice had her laptop with her and, from the back seat of our Mazda MPV minivan, she made an interesting discovery: The corridor from Silver Spring to Rockville is loaded with unencrypted Wi-Fi zones. She fired up Airport and went searching. Wireless connections were everywhere, like fruit dangling from trees.

The van sped up Georgia Ave., feasting on unknown neighbors' Internet connections. It turned on Veirs Mill, grabbing the Web from coffee shops. Onward they went, leaping from connection to connection like gibbons brachiating through the jungle. When they got to Rockville they drove in circles around the county court complex, sucking like vampires from Wi-Fi that was labeled CEXECS and DCOURT. Beatrice was able to download all 10 images and e-mail them to herself.

My question for you: Was this wrong? Should she have hijacked others' Wi-Fi? (I wondered the same thing after we first moved to England and hadn't yet gotten our Internet installed.) I wondered if you would take this little survey. Answer honestly, please.

Now I have another question:

Thank you. I'm curious about whether there will be much deviation between our two sets of answers. Share your thoughts and experiences in the "Commons" Comments section.

And if you're ever desperate to check your e-mail somewhere between Silver Spring and Rockville, I don't think it'll be a problem.

By John Kelly  |  December 10, 2008; 9:03 AM ET
 | Tags: computers, web  
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While I appreciate the kids initiative, we pay for bandwidth and we aren't offering a free service for the neighborhood. Our networks are locked down.

Posted by: treadlefish | December 10, 2008 9:17 AM | Report abuse

you need a third choice on that second poll.

since my network is encrypted and password protected, neither choice is appropriate for me. i don't need to worry about people grabbing free internet from me.

Posted by: IMGoph | December 10, 2008 9:50 AM | Report abuse

If you play music loud enough to be heard on the street should folks cover their ears? You can lock down your wireless network and if you don't what's the big deal then?

While we're on it Washington Post, did your daughter attempt to log on to the Washington Post? If she had she'd find out the problem many of us have trying to hook up wirelessly. Compared to just about any other major news website .. the Post is a royal pain. Slow, slow and slower. What is it the page coding? The server? All the ads? .. it's got to be something. I find myself reading the NYTs more and more in the morning simply because of this factor.

Posted by: tslats | December 10, 2008 9:57 AM | Report abuse

My computer takes so long to identify and connect to a network that sure enough, by the time it connects, I'm on to the next one, but nice thought anyway. Heck, Panera's signals barely get more than 100 feet from their bases and mine barely touches my neighbors houses. Somehow I doubt that one was able to stay online the whole time unless taking advantage of a corner Panera at a stop light.

Posted by: dj1123 | December 10, 2008 9:59 AM | Report abuse

If I remember correctly, theft of internet connections has, in the past, been prosecuted. So be careful.

That said, though, I think everyone's done it from time to time.

It just means that technologies like Wi-Max need to get here as fast as they can.

Posted by: JoeSchmoe06 | December 10, 2008 10:04 AM | Report abuse

Along East West Highway, close to 16th street, you can find the wireless network "

Posted by: edlharris | December 10, 2008 10:07 AM | Report abuse

I have no problems poaching on hot spots in public places like county courts and coffee shops. In fact, I like to think the day is not far off when entire municipalities will be big, open-access hot-spots.

But then when people, like myself, want to protect their private networks, they should lock them down and make them secure.

Posted by: josa33 | December 10, 2008 10:13 AM | Report abuse

I have only poached occasionally in public places. I wouldn't feel right intruding on a residential network, not that I can really explain the ethical distinction. My own home network is encrypted and password protected, not so much to prevent free-riders as to guard the data I transmit (plus, I'm still unsure about the settings for file-sharing between my two computers, and whether a third-party could access those too).

Posted by: Janine1 | December 10, 2008 10:39 AM | Report abuse

A. I'm not sure that "poaching" is the appropriate term, since, as far as I know, the people who are knowingly or otherwise providing public access are not losing access for themselves (but I'm not a tech person); "hitchhiking" seems more appropriate, especially since at this point, one would hope that most people who have wifi set up should know, or should have been told, about securing it.

B. I don't know how far the signals reach, but the MacDonald's by Silver Spring station and the Caribou Coffe at the Blair Plaza the other side of Silver Spring station have free, open wifi. But I suspect that if you're driving, you'd be out of range before they would connect.

C. Was it necessary to keep driving around the Rockville courthouse complex? To me, that seems the "wrong" part. Couldn't you have simply live-parked someplace and turned the engine off?

Posted by: edallan | December 10, 2008 11:42 AM | Report abuse

I was at a friend condo one time last year before he had wi-fi. In searching for a signal, I found an unencrypted "LINKSYS" connection. Since the owner failed to secure his connection, I doubt he changed the IP address and admin password. AFter typing, I managed to login to the administration site. Another friend suggested I secure the connection, thus locking out the owner. Someone else asked me how it was done since his wife set up their wi-fi. I found out later that their's was unencrypted and they followed my instructions to encrypt it.

It's the dumbing of America. I call it the "Linksyfication" of America. Really Linksys should make encryption mandatory.

Posted by: lamaccountant1 | December 10, 2008 11:53 AM | Report abuse

Maybe I should reconsider my comment for the facts.

I don't have a wireless inet setup but if someone is poaching your wireless .. does it slow you down?

Posted by: tslats | December 10, 2008 12:46 PM | Report abuse

Well, well. I find this interesting, though I'm not surprised. A majority of people don't want others pinching a bit of THEIR wi-fi, but a majority also admits they do it to others. I probably fall into that category, too.

My current home wi-fi is encrypted, and it shows up with some generic name like "wi-fi." The Apple guy who helped me set it up said it's not a good idea to name it something like "Kelly family wireless," since it just advertises the fact to people who might wish you harm.

@tslats: I don't know why The Post is slower than others. Could it be because of all the digital goodness we try to pack into every byte, er, bite?

@JoeSchmoe06: Is it stealing, or is it borrowing without permission? My Lovely Wife, a lawyer, is going to see what the courts have said about this.

@edallan: Yes, it is more like hitchhiking, snagging a ride on something that's already there. But does your presence slow down the rightful owner's downloads? Was it necessary to drive around the courthouse? My wife says yes. There was no place to park and she didn't want to loiter in the very clearly signed "No Standing" areas in front of the court. Of course, you'd think the court (and, apparently, the county council) would have locked their wi-fi down.

Posted by: JohnFKelly | December 10, 2008 3:20 PM | Report abuse

Some courthouses actually intend to offer wifi access to the public, and announce it on their websites, so that people can use wireless devices.

Posted by: Janine1 | December 10, 2008 4:48 PM | Report abuse

I "borrow" other people's connections and I wouldn't mind somebody borrowing mine if I didn't have it encrypted. If I didn't want anybody to use it I wouldn't leave it open...

Posted by: Akinoluna | December 11, 2008 9:41 AM | Report abuse

You definitely need a third choice on the second survey. First thing we did when we set it up was secure our wi-fi!

Posted by: Niniane | December 11, 2008 12:00 PM | Report abuse

If it's open and I'm in need, I'll poach. If it's locked, I'll move along, nothing to see there. Only once have I done this though (and only because I HAD to connect to the office urgently).

If someone wants into my network and can get past the security, who am I to stop them? Just like locks, secured networks keep out those who abide by rules. And also like locks, they can be broken by those who know how and have the desire to do so.

Posted by: SamFelis | December 12, 2008 2:27 PM | Report abuse

"The van sped up Georgia Ave., feasting on unknown neighbors' Internet connections."

Feasting on wifi while driving? Hardly. She downloaded at the stoplights, not while the car was moving, much less speeding.

Posted by: prokaryote | December 12, 2008 2:33 PM | Report abuse

If you're outside a business or home, and the light from their open window falls on your map and you read the map by their light, does this constitute stealing their electricity? I feel it's an apt analogy, and no I don't think it's stealing if it's open and available to all and the light is falling onto your computer so to speak.

I read a case where a person was arrested and prosecuted for accessing a business's wi-fi that was free for their customers, because he was sitting in the parking lot and not a customer. So although I don't think it should be categorized as stealing I still don't do it, just out of fear of being made a fluke example case.

However, you can't always help it. I pay for my own wi-fi, but because I can't get my computer to stop searching for best internet connection, half the time at home it's on someone else's network. Because I've got two or three neighbors with unencrypted networks which, in the back of my house, are all stronger than my own. Go figure.

I read that cable companies and broadband companies have been throwing this topic around and have discussed prosecuting the people who have not encrypted their network and who make it possible for others to poach and thereby deprive the cable companies of their 'rightful income.'Obviously I don't agree with this.

Anyway, going back to the light analogy, hopefully municipalities will eventually provide an infrastructure of publicly available wi-fi for all, just like publicly available streetlamps.

Posted by: rachel12 | December 12, 2008 6:05 PM | Report abuse

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