Helping people with computers... one answer at a time.

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

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 logon to the unsecured wireless network, a NETGEAR network. The signal is low and only about 500K 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 need.

And yet, resist it you should.

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

I actually don't have a definitive approach to identifying the owner of an open hotspot. The access point name 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 just no reliable way to know for sure, without more information.

"I certainly hope you have a good firewall, as well as anti-malware and backup solutions."

So we'll simply assume it's a poorly configured access point in someone's home or business.

Now, I am not a lawyer, so I'm certainly not giving out legal advice. But I would guess that it's highly likely that what you're doing is, in fact, illegal in most places. Naturally, laws and enforcement vary greatly from location to location.

I have no idea what the law is in your situation, but it's safest to assume that it's illegal.

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

When you connect to the internet, the owner of the connection could pretty much see everything you do.

Most of the time you have no need to really 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.

But they could.

If the person down the street notices that his internet has slowed to a crawl at unexpected times he will care. And 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 that's perhaps difficult for a lay person to interpret completely, but it's easy to watch and easy to capture. And with some serious computer savvy it's also possible to mess with.

Let's consider a different risk: malware, and liability.

You've got your computer's firewall up, and that's great, but you're still exposing yourself to an unknown network. In fact, I'd claim that since that network has no wireless password it's likely that the person operating it is less technically savvy than you are. You're about to trust their having set up their network properly and securely, and the one data point you have says that's not very likely.

I certainly hope you have a good firewall, as well as anti-malware and backup solutions.

Looking at it in a different light, what happens if you accidentally have malware already and it ends up infecting one of the machines on this unknown network? Once again, I'm no lawyer, but I'd expect it's possible for some serious liability issues to arise should you be discovered as the source.

Finally, there's another even more troubling scenario. Hackers have been known to set up open Wifi hotspots specifically to lure in unsuspecting victims, and then monitor their internet traffic and steal valuable information or worse.

As you can probably predict by now, here's my suggestion: don't do it. Just don't. There's simply too much risk, both legal and technical, if you head down that path.

If you must, if you just can't help yourself or if you've discovered that you're connecting to a legitimate, legally accessible public Wifi hotspot, then of course you do need to treat it as you would any open hotspot: How do I stay safe in an internet cafe?

In your shoes, I'd wait 'till Monday, or perhaps visit a trusted friend.

Article C4290 - May 2, 2010 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

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8 Comments
Joe
May 3, 2010 2:22 PM

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.

SteveB
May 4, 2010 9:43 AM

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 geocaching.com 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?

Black Dahlia
May 4, 2010 2:21 PM

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.
Leo
05-May-2010

Jim Ballenger
May 5, 2010 9:07 AM

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?
Leo
06-May-2010

Tony
May 5, 2010 7:21 PM

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.

Bob
May 6, 2010 9:00 AM

I live in high-rise accommodation. At any point in time, my partner's laptop can 'see' anything up to 20 different networks. That laptop differentiates between networks with the same name, listing them seperately by signal strength, while my works laptop does not. I assume the difference is down to software loaded on the laptops - is there freeware available that does something similar, or is it purely down to bundled software/drivers on the respective machines?

Chad
May 8, 2010 7:52 AM

I have a wireless network set up in our house, it is secured but my son gets on his computer daily. How can I look to see what sites he has been visiting from the router?

Mug
October 29, 2011 7:15 PM

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.
Leo
30-Oct-2011

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