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Is Wi-Fi Provided by My Landlord Safe?

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I’m a cable internet user now, but I’m moving into a new apartment where the landlord provides free wireless internet to me and two other tenants in the house. I just have to supply a wireless adapter/card for my PC. How do I take advantage of my new landlord’s offer and at the same time protect my personal electronic information from the other tenants — and my landlord — when I cannot control the router?

By having administrative access to the router providing your internet access — be it an open WiFi hotspot, a hotel, your place of employment, or even your internet service provider, or ISP — the provider can monitor your usage. Accidentally or on purpose, they may also allow others on the network to sniff your traffic.

It doesn’t matter whether the connection is wired or wireless.

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Who do you trust?

In general, we trust our ISP, and perhaps even our employer, but it’s a bad idea to trust hotels and open Wi-Fi hotspots. Both are easily abused, either by network administrators or by those willing to sit quietly in a corner and capture internet traffic passing by.

In either case, they may be able to catch accounts, passwords, and more from users who haven’t sufficiently protected themselves.

A Landlord's Key Hand-offAs generous as your landlord’s offer is, it falls into exactly the same boat.

  • When your landlord provides your internet, that makes him your ISP. If he’s technically knowledgeable, he can watch the traffic on the network he’s providing.
  • Depending on the network configuration, your neighbors (or anyone in range of the wireless network) might also be able to watch traffic sent wirelessly.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because it is: it’s exactly the same risk you run when using an open Wi-Fi hotspot at your local coffee shop or elsewhere.

The good news, then, is that exactly the same solutions apply.

  • Secure connections. Any connection beginning with https instead of http is an encrypted connection. Your landlord or others might see which sites you are visiting (e.g. gmail.com), but the data (e.g. your email) is encrypted. Using an https connection to a service like Gmail is one way to secure your email from snooping.1 The same is true when using desktop email programs, except it’s called SSL or TLS when configuring your email account connections.
  • VPNs. A VPN, or “Virtual Private Network”, is a fully encrypted connection to a VPN server, which then connects you to the internet. These are typically meant for people who travel and use WiFi hotspots a lot, but they’re useful in many other situations as well.
  • Anonymous web surfing. If you use a service like TOR, snoopers might be able to tell you’re using the service, but they cannot tell where you’re surfing; it’s all encrypted.

Recommendations

Given that you’ll be connecting this way almost exclusively in your new residence, I’d recommend a VPN as the easiest solution. It’ll protect everything you do from your landlord and neighbors. I have been happy with TunnelBear myself, but there are many other popular services.

On the other hand, the ultimate solution is getting your own internet connection independent of your landlord. It’s worth at least a quick look and cost comparison. Be sure to include the option of using your mobile provider as well. Depending on your data plan and how you use the internet, this can be a very reasonable alternative.

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Footnotes

1: In theory, a hotspot owner or ISP could perform a man-in-the-middle attack and possibly intercept the encrypted traffic. This is extremely difficult, and rare, and typically has warning signs, including error messages of various sorts.

7 comments on “Is Wi-Fi Provided by My Landlord Safe?”

  1. Aside from Leo’s points, this rings lots of alarm bells for me.

    I don’t know where the person asking the question lives, but I did notice a mention of “house” (as opposed to an apartment building) and a total of three tenants, including himself.

    I live in southern Brooklyn where unscrupulous practices by landlords are sadly not uncommon. I can easily envision the inquirer’s (apparently small-time) landlord sharing a residential broadband with multiple households without permission of the underlying ISP, which is surely a violation of the ISP’s terms of use. (After all, the ISP wants to sell broadband to individual households, so they stand to lose revenue in a situation like this.)

    There are three other problems here:

    First, if the underlying ISP is a cable provider, even people who connect directly to the cable network can suffer slowdowns during peak hours In fact, this can also happen with DSL, even though DSL connections are supposedly not shared with neighbors. (Google [brooklyn verizon dsl peak slowdowns] for an proof of this). Now you are talking about sharing a single connection which is subject to a “double slowdown” if the other tenants are hitting the Wi-Fi connection hard.

    The second problem is that, should anything go wrong with the connection, if it should go down completely, let’s say, you have additional layers of complication in getting the problem solved. You can’t call the underlying ISP directly, and the landlord might have better things to do than deal with Internet connectivity problems. Sure, if the landlord lives in the house and uses the connection himself, it’s in his best interest to get such problems solved, but what if he’s out of town or something when this happens?

    Finally, there is the recently-reported case of Roderick Vosburgh, whose home was raided last year in an FBI sting involving posted hyperlinks that purported to be illegal videos of minors having sex. Vosburgh was found guily of attempting to download child pornography and faces three to four years in prison. A CNET article about this case mentions the following:

    QUOTE:

    The defendant in [another similar] case, Travis Carter, suggested that any of the neighbors could be using his wireless network. (The public defender’s office even sent out an investigator who confirmed that dozens of homes were within Wi-Fi range.)

    But the magistrate judge ruled that even the possibilities of spoofing or other users of an open Wi-Fi connection “would not have negated a substantial basis for concluding that there was probable cause to believe that evidence of child pornography would be found on the premises to be searched.” Translated, that means the search warrant was valid.

    END QUOTE

    So, it I were you, I would absolutely, positively get my own Internet connection and steer clear of the Wi-Fi deal completely.

    Reply
  2. I try to use WiFi as little as possible and never use my credit card info online if I can avoid it. If you need reason to, check out some clips from a TV show that demonstrates how unscrupulous people can watch your WiFi and steal your credit card info. I can’t post links here, so, search youtube for wifi and real hustle.

    Reply
  3. I am the “landlord” (NOT the one in the article above). I don’t know how to look at my “tenant’s” data, but how do I protect myself from my tenant and for that matter someone in another apartment or someone just driving by the apartment building? According to my tenant, there are 8 different networks registering on his laptop (including mine).

    Because my tenant shares the cost of the connection with me, I feel I have to protect the both of us from “problems.”

    I have a Linksys Wireless-G 2.4 MHz Broadband Router. I am wired directly to the router and my tenant uses the wireless connection. The router itself has a password on it and you need to enter an encryption key to gain access to the network to which my router is attached. Thanks, ERIC

    Reply
  4. In response to Kannie’s comment. Google Chrome’s “incognito” mode does not count as anonymous web surfing. The mode only does not store any information on your computer about the sites you’ve visited. All the sites you visit still know your IP and the data is by no means encrypted. TOR works pretty good, but to use it in Chrome, you need to follow these instructions [broken link removed]

    Reply
  5. I am also using my landlords free unlimited internet in the residence. I set up a vpn and a paid proxy only to discover that although he coulod not see what I was doing he still could monitor my bandwidth usage. After watching steaming movies on a LEGAL site I was informed I am now only to browse and send emails. So to me the paid VPN and the paid Proxy was useless. Buy the way my downloads for the streams was 2.8 gig = two hd movies. So no more movies and no more skype. Thanks VPN

    Reply

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