Wireless 'piggy-backers' snare free Internet

Three weeks ago, a local resident who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity was using his laptop at home when it notified him that it had detected a wireless Internet signal coming into his house.

A quick check revealed that he was within the radius of not just one but three neighbors or businesses with wireless Internet systems. Two were protected by passwords but the third was wide open.

He has been using the unsecured wireless network for free ever since.

An unknown number of Ashlanders are piggy-backing off of neighbors as well as bed and breakfast inns, hotels, coffee shops and other businesses that have not protected their wireless networks with passwords.

As more people are drawn to the convenience of wireless and as articles on how to tap into unsecured networks proliferate on the Internet, the practice could become more widespread. Many laptops and even cell phones will alert users when they find wireless signals.

Asked whether he thought he was stealing wireless service, the anonymous resident responded, "I think that's a tough question."

He went on to add, "That's because on the one hand, it's obviously a service those people are paying for, but on the other hand, the wireless signal came into my house and I didn't do anything to search it out.

It's a question to me of who owns the airwaves. It's similar to radio. I don't pay for radio. The signal comes into my house and I pick it up."

He said he does realize that by using the wireless network, he is slowing down the other person's Internet access. The speed varies from extremely slow to nearly as fast as a high-speed connection.

He still has regular wired Internet service, but has found the wireless connection &

which allows him to work on his laptop outside or in his easy chair &

to be more convenient.

With many wireless networks reaching 100 feet or more, he said he still has no idea whose wireless service he is using.

"I've contemplated trying to find my neighbor to see if they want to password protect it and share the password with me," he said. "Maybe I would pay them a little to use it."

Security risks

City of Ashland Information Technology Director Joe Franell said unsecured wireless networks pose serious security problems.

People who use their neighbors' wireless networks may not have malicious intentions, but unsecured networks provide an open door to third parties who can steal personal data like credit card numbers, social security numbers, e-mail passwords and on-line banking information.

"Basically, you've left your file cabinet on your front lawn," he said.

Many people don't secure their networks because manufacturers sell wireless routers in ready-to-use condition. But Franell urged people to take the extra step of consulting their users' manuals and safeguarding their networks with a password.

"Even if you don't care that your neighbors are using it, secure it and give them a password," he said. "That way, you're protecting yourself and your neighbor."

Franell, the head of the city-owned Ashland Fiber Network, said he does think wireless piggy-backing has the potential to hurt AFN revenues, but he doesn't view it as a serious threat.

The city sells a wireless service, afnAnywhere, for

$3.95 per day, $12.95 per week or $30 per month. A customer who has regular AFN Internet service can add on wireless service for $6.95 a month.

Franell said most Internet users want reliable, fast service. Using someone else's wireless service is not reliable and speeds fluctuate as different numbers of users share the bandwidth.

For some businesses, leaving their wireless networks unsecured means greater convenience for customers.

Around town

David Runkel, president of Ashland Bed and Breakfast Network, said most bed and breakfasts in town offer wireless service because that's what guests expect these days.

He has two unsecured wireless networks serving his inn and a set of garden suites on either side of East Main Street. He agreed to allow his name to be published.

The Tidings did not publish the name of his bed and breakfast inn for security reasons.

"As of now, our networks are not secure," Runkel said earlier this week. "But we did get advice from a guest this weekend who's in the business. He said, 'Boy, you run some risk from having insecure Wi-Fi.' It's not just from the people using it. Some hacker could get into my computer system."

Runkel said if he secures the networks he will have to give out passwords to guests, which will make it a little harder for them to have access.

Customers at the Starbucks Coffee location in downtown Ashland &

the first Starbucks to offer wireless Internet service &

have to activate a T-Mobile HotSpot account and pay a fee to use the system. The Starbucks site on Siskiyou Boulevard also offers the service.

Debit and credit card information is encrypted, as well as user name and password information and data that travels from customers' laptops to the Wi-Fi access points at the coffee shops, according to information sent by the Starbucks media relations office.

However, the T-Mobile HotSpot Security Statement &

available to customers at selfcare.hotspot.t-mobile.com/security.htm &

warns users that wireless networks are still vulnerable to unauthorized access.

T-Mobile advises customers to take their own precautions, including using personal computer firewalls and virus protection software.

Charles Carreon, a local attorney who specializes in Internet cases, operates a Web site that allows users to have free access to copyrighted material.

But even he is not an advocate of leaving wireless networks unsecured to provide widespread free Internet access.

"It's very far from safe," he said.

A hacker could break into computers and steal information, sign people up for services they don't want, hijack computers and use them to send out spam or plant damaging material like child pornography, Carreon said.

But he said a law to ban unsecured wireless networks would be a bad idea. That would be like banning public swimming pools because someone could catch a communicable disease, he said.

Nevertheless, Carreon said people who leave their networks unsecured and neighbors who are piggy-backing off those networks should be aware of the hazards.

"You should know what you're getting into," he said.

Staff writer can be reached at 479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com. To post a comment, visit .

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