My mother has recently bought a new home. Amongst the many other things that must be done to prepare the home, she is setting up Internet access. To do so, she picked up an old wireless router from a friend. No manual, and it defaulted to being unsecured.
“How do I fix this?”, she asked me. I gave some general advice. Mostly because I had no specific advice to give. Naturally, it was not the easiest advice to follow.
“Do I really need it secured?”, she then asked.
I had never before pondered this question — my assumption, like many others, was yes. So I decided to Google it.
As it turns out, Google is bad at answering this question — it seems like the entire world simply assumes that wireless networks need protection, and unprotected wireless is evil. Australian Police patrol for unlocked WiFi. Blogs wonder who’s to blame, or simply comment on it as a bad thing and provide advice for making yours secure without explaining why.
Digging further revealed two major concerns:
1. Stealing data. Somebody is going to use the one-less layer of security to do some identity theft.
2. Abusing your network. Somebody is going to use it to download child porn, and you’ll be under investigation.
I have two responses: What? And, who?
To those concerned about item #1 — who is stealing this data? Are your neighbours out to rob you, or is somebody sitting outside your home trying to get your credit card information?
If you are seriously worried about this, ask yourself one question: Why would somebody target you? It’s not convenient to find your unprotected WiFi connection, and then loiter until the necessary information is obtained. So unless you’re a particularly good target (from a material or bragging perspective), why would you be targeted? You are a waste of the hacker’s time.
It’s much better to sit outside the business lounge at an airport, a swanky hotel lobby, or an Internet cafe, and have a wide variety of victims than to expend such effort on a single victim who might take a frustratingly long time to input their credit card details on eBay. Are you afraid to use the free Internet at the airport? You should be. It’s way riskier.
Which brings us to point 2: Others abusing your system. Downloading music illegally, using up your bandwidth allotment, sending bomb threats.
Or, to quote the most-stated worry from the online world: Using your WiFi for child porn.
Really, people of the Internet? This is your concern? That your neighbour is downloading child porn? Typing in search terms that have almost certainly put me on a government watch-list for potential child sex crime people (and did I mention I live across the street from a school? I should have stolen someone else’s WiFi for that one) reveals exactly one example. One. In the whole world, for the whole duration of WiFi being available to the general public.
Moreover, this reminds me of an article I read in the Times recently: We approach others’ children at our peril. It’s an excellent article, outlining how our society has moved from one in which we trusted one another to one in which every stranger is a potential predator.
I remember, as a child, learning in school to be cautious around strangers. “Say NO, then GO and TELL” was the motto of the day. You can see how liberal that was — we were actually told to address the strangers. Later came Stranger Danger. Now adults will not dare intervene with another person’s children for fear of being labelled a predator.
It’s a similar approach that is leading us to be afraid of letting our neighbours use our WiFi. What if the neighbour is a child pornographer? What if they’re a terrorist? What if they’re an evil hacker hell-bent on stealing my identity?
Likely, they are none of these things. Even if they are one of them, chances are that they will not “shit where they eat”, if you will pardon my language.
The only argument I understand is the bandwidth cap argument. Depending on your provider and your plan, you can be charged additional fees and/or cut off for using the Internet too much. If this is you, by all means lock up your Internet. Keep track of every drop. You may also have a clause in your agreement that requires you to lock it. Then you probably should — after all, you agreed to do so.
Otherwise, dear Internet, I ask you to help us to move towards a more trusting world. Step one is free WiFi.
[Also, you should read this article on Wired. Because I did, and probably stole some stuff from it.]