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Is It OK to Use this Random Wireless Network I Just Found?

Probably not. There are risks.

When scanning for wireless connections, you may find several that are unknown, yet appear open and available. Using them is very risky.

Caution: Wi-Fi Ahead

Question: My internet connection went down on a Friday, and the service rep gave me a service call time for Monday, maybe. My HP notebook has wireless capability, so I turned it on and checked what wireless networks were available. There are 3 secured and 1 unsecured wireless networks. I am able to log on to the unsecured wireless network, a NETGEAR network. The signal is low but works. Am I breaking the law by using someone else’s wireless network? Is there a way to find out where this wireless network is and who owns it? Hopefully, it is a free public wireless network. Am I in any danger from using this wireless network? I am not doing anything that requires a password, and I have Windows Firewall, Norton antivirus, and Windows Defender running on my computer.

What you’re doing is very common. With so many open wireless hotspots around, it’s a temptation that’s frequently too hard to resist, particularly when you’re in dire need.

Yet resist it you should.

There are a number of problems connecting to an unknown but open hotspot.

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Connecting to a random wireless network

Connecting to an unrecognized yet open Wi-Fi network raises legal and ethical issues as well as questions about your safety. If you are in dire need, it’s much safer to find a known internet connection such as at your local coffee shop.

Who owns it?

I don’t have a good approach to identifying the owner of an open hotspot.

The access point name or SSID that’s displayed is often a clue, I suppose, but clearly the person who set up the open hotspot you’re seeing didn’t bother to change the default name, so that’s no help at all.

There’s no reliable way to know for sure or track it down without more information.

So we have to assume it’s a poorly configured access point in someone’s home or business.

Is connecting to it legal?

I am not a lawyer, and I don’t even play one on TV. This should not be considered legal advice.

My guess is that it’s very likely that what you’re doing is, in fact, illegal in most places. Naturally, laws and law enforcement vary greatly from location to location. I have no idea what the law is in your location, but it’s safest to assume connecting (and by implication using the WiFi) without permission is illegal.

Is connecting to it ethical?

Even if it’s legal, using someone else’s internet connection without their permission is ethically questionable.

Even if someone leaves their internet connection horribly unprotected in the form of an open Wi-Fi connection, that doesn’t give you the moral right to connect to and use it. For example, they could be on a metered connection, and your use could cost them additional money. At a minimum, it could slow down whatever they might be doing.

That they didn’t set things up properly themselves is no excuse, and it doesn’t give you a pass.

At a practical level, though, legality and morality may not even be your biggest issue.

Is connecting to it safe?

When you connect to the internet, the owner of the connection can see everything you do.

Most of the time, you do not need to be concerned. Your “real” ISP (the one you’re paying money to, and the one who’s apparently coming out on Monday) typically doesn’t care. When you visit a friend, they probably don’t care. When you visit a coffee shop or hotel with free internet, they probably don’t care what you’re doing online.

But they might.

If the person down the street notices that his internet has slowed to a crawl at unexpected times, he will care. If he’s tech-savvy at all, he might well be able to peek at what you’re doing. Even with a simple router or access point, it’s not that difficult to set up a PC with some software to monitor traffic. It’ll be complex data, perhaps difficult for a layperson to interpret completely, but it’s easy to watch and easy to capture.

In the worst-case scenario, that open Wi-Fi hotspot could be set up as a “honeypot”, explicitly designed to lure unsuspecting folks to connect to it. In that case, it almost certainly has malicious intent.

Malware: his, yours, and theirs

You’re exposing your computer to an unknown network.

Since that network has no wireless password, it’s likely the person operating it is less technically savvy than you are. By connecting to their network, you’re about to trust that they’ve set it up properly and securely. The one data point you have says that’s not likely.

You’ll be exposing your machine to whatever he has on his network, malware and all. Even with a good firewall or VPN on your part, that’s just not a risk worth taking.

Looking at it from the other direction, what happens if your computer has malware and ends up infecting one of the machines on this unknown network? Once again, I’m no lawyer, but I’d expect liability issues can arise should you be discovered as the source.

Do this

Just say no.

My suggestion is simple: don’t do it. Just don’t. There’s too much risk — legally, ethically, and technically — if you head down that path.

If you must — if you just can’t help yourself, or if you’ve discovered you’re connecting to a legitimate, legally accessible public Wi-Fi hotspot — then of course you need to treat it as you would any open hotspot: How Do I Use an Open Wi-Fi Hotspot Safely?

In your shoes, I’d wait ’til Monday, or perhaps visit a trusted friend, coffee shop, or library.

I’d also suggest you subscribe to Confident Computing! Less frustration and more confidence, solutions, answers, and tips in your inbox every week.

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14 comments on “Is It OK to Use this Random Wireless Network I Just Found?”

  1. A tech savvy person wouldn’t leave his internet connection open and unsecured.
    The police would probably tell him go and password protect your internet instead of bothering us.

  2. Call me a fool but my system is open, mainly because my wife can’t handle logging on. However, I don’t mind the occasional user of it. I feel that I am paying back for using other’s. I geocache and search for open systems with my iPod to connect to and during lunch hour. All for purely boaring things like news and Facebook. Which brings up the interesting observation that the great application, WiFi Analyser seems to no longer be available. Any insight about that?

    • Log on to your network for her and have the settings in that device remember the network.
      None of our devices (computers, phones, tablets, printers, TV) forget the network when they are turned back on.
      Our phones and tablets have a number of remembered networks in them and automatically connect when near them.

  3. Exactly how does one passively catch malware from a network?

    Passively can mean many things, but a few that come to mind:

    With a poorly quality or poorly configured firewall malware can invade from the outside.

    A savvy enough hacker can configure the access point to intercept your traffic in such a way that when web pages are delivered malware is also inserted with it

    Along those same lines a hacker could configure the access point to intercept and spoof sites you go to and capture your logins – depending on how vigilant you are it’s not that hard, once spoofed, to capture sensitive information.


  4. I think you should spend more time telling them how to protect their computer rather then DON”T HOOK UP! Google keeps trying to set up wid area hookups i.e. Sebastopol,CA. The nuts in town were worried about the radio waves. They didn’t know that onewould be a lot less than thousands of small sites!!

    “How to protect” is covered in this article already on the site and listed in the related links above: How do I stay safe in an internet cafe?


  5. I connected through my neighbors wireless router for a few months while waiting for service from my ISP. Obviously it didn’t work if they switched it completely off, but once it was left on, I got good signals when they were out, and a weaker signal if they were at home using the internet at the same time I was on. I tested it again recently, but they seem to have become a little more tech savvy now and installed a password.

  6. I live in Malaysia and I remember that I use to often use this one unsecured NETGEAR network with my father’s laptop, the connection speed was pretty good so I figured it was someone close (they were normal families around us), I don’t recall any security problems and there was an anti-virus and (most probably) a firewall, does this mean users of NETGEAR are usually not tech-savy or NETGEAR is populor among hackers and whatnot?
    P.S. My dad’s laptop always did have problems, but he’s very non tech-savy and he never removes the power-adapter or offs the power, though he doesn’t use the net for entertainment. Is it more likely that that caused the problems or my internet usage?

    All it most likely means is that someone failed to set up security on that router. Nothing more nothing less. Yes, it’s possible that it was intentional, but there’s no way to tell. That it was a NetGear router is immaterial.

  7. Leo, you wrote:

    If the person down the street notices that his internet has slowed to a crawl at unexpected times, he will care. If he’s tech-savvy at all, he might well be able to peek at what you’re doing.

    I beg your parsnips?

    You just made the point of saying — in fact, you went out of your way to make the point of saying — that the fact that the SSID is the default, indicates that its user is NOT tech savvy.

    So… huh?!?

    • While it’s true that it’s unlikely that a tech savvy person will have an unsecured hotspot, they might have a tech savvy friend look into their connection problem. I help a few friends with their computer problems. It’s very easy to see which devices are connected to your network.

  8. For me, the answer to this question is very simple and can be answered with what my parents told me when I was young. “If it ain’t yours, don’t take it!”. I was asking about a toy I saw laying by the street in front of my house, but the answer has remained with me and served me well throughout my life, not to mention how it has provided me with the basis for my personal standards of ethics, honor, and decency.

    Ernie (oldster)

  9. I consider myself tech savvy, I have worked on computers and owned computers since 1984, but my network is not password protected. Other people using my network is not a problem where I live. My problem is having enough wireless signal to cover my house. With five computers, two tablets, and two phones, it is just too much trouble to set up a password on a network that nobody else can use. I got tired having to set up and maintain other peoples computers/phone just for them to be able to get on my network. And then there were some that would not let me near their equipment.
    Do I really care if somebody else can see that I am playing games, browsing Social Media, looking at the news, working on Ancestry, or looking at Porn? Now if I was doing financial work from home, I would care more.


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