Piggybacking on someone else’s wifi connection must be a major problem. The

Sunday New York Times has a big

story on it, quoting people from all over the country, and featuring the

work of three reporters. The headline? "Hey Neighbor, Stop Piggybacking

on My Wireless".

The opening anecdote features Mr and Mrs Brodeur in Los Angeles, whose connection,

we are told, became "as slow as rush-hour traffic on the 405 freeway"

because of piggybacking neighbors:

The additional online traffic nearly choked out the Brodeurs, who pay a $40

monthly fee for their Internet service, slowing down their access until it

was practically unusable.

This may be true, but if so it’s uncommon. The vast majority of broadband customers

in the US are not throttled: their ISPs don’t artificially constrain their bandwidth.

So most of the time it makes precious little difference whether your neighbor

uses his own broadband connection or yours, especially if, as is likely, he

would be buying bandwidth from the same place that you are. The size of the

pipe into the neighborhood is unchanged.

Of course, the New York Times doesn’t go into such details. Instead, we get

sentences like these:

Some, like Marla Edwards, who believe they have locked intruders

out of their networks, learn otherwise.

Many who piggyback say the practice does not feel like theft

because it does not seem to actually take anything away from anyone.

When Ms. Ramirez asked the man what he was doing, he said he was stealing

a wireless Internet connection because he did not have one at home

The clear implication is that piggybacking is theft, is stealing,

that those who do it are intruders, and that while it may not seem

to take something away from anyone… but there the thought ends. At no point

do the article’s authors actually come out and explain whether or not piggybacking

is theft, or what might be being taken away. They just leave the idea hanging,


It’s not long before we start to understand why the article seems so biased.

Look at who gets cited next:

Piggybacking, makers of wireless routers say, is increasingly

an issue for users who live in densely populated areas like New York City…

Now, it’s pretty obvious why makers of wireless routers might be opposed to

piggybacking: why they’re hardly impartial observers. But the obvious conflict

is never addressed. Instead, we get yet another company with a dog in this race:

"The best case is that you end up giving a neighbor a free ride,"

[said David Cole of Symantec]. "The worse case is that someone can destroy

your computer, take your files and do some really nefarious things

with your network that gets you dragged into court."

Does Mr Cole or the New York Times come up with even one instance where such

a thing has happened? No. Instead, we’re given a free plug for Mr Cole’s product:

Mr. Cole said Symantec and other companies had created software that could

not only lock out most network intruders but also protect computers and their

content if an intruder managed to gain access.

In other words, what we have here is the New York Times uncritically parroting

the propaganda of companies who have everything to gain by scaring people about

how horrible and borderline illegal piggybacking is. It would have been much

more responsible to have an objective look at the issue and see whether it really

is doing any measurable harm.

A broadband connection is a wonderful thing, and most people barely use more

than a tiny fraction of the bandwidth that they’re paying for. So it’s not necessarily

"a passive protest of what they consider the exorbitant cost of Internet

access" when they leave their networks open: rather, it can be simple altruism,

and pleasure in helping other people out.

I pay for my broadband. Occasionally, however, like any internet service, it

goes down. Then, it’s very useful to be able to piggyback on someone else’s

connection while I’m trying to work out what the problem is. Similarly, I’m

happy to return the favour if one of my neighbor’s connections goes down. Is

sharing of broadband an example of being a bad neighbor, as the New York Times

would have it? I rather think it’s exactly the opposite.

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5 Responses to Piggybacking

  1. Sterling says:

    If someone has not committed even the minimal effort required to secure a wireless network, then they have no grounds to complain when people use it. It’s like placing a drinking fountain next to the sidewalk at the unfenced edge of your property and then complaining when people take a drink.

  2. Lance Knobel says:

    What made the article particularly odd was that the simple procedure of encrypting your signal is only discussed in the closing paragraphs. The Brodeurs who were so unhappy in the lede had done that already, so there was no story to tell.

  3. jr says:

    With all due respect – and I don’t work for Cisco, D-Link, etal.

    You conveniently ignore the fact that while, “the neighborhood pipe” doesn’t change, the capacity of my modem/router, etc. IS ABSOLUTELY a limiting factor for at least two reasons: While ISPs may not be, “artifcially constrain[ing]’ bandwidth, my connection has a top speed of around 4Mb. That is a limit. Also, ethernet – which is what most of us have in our homes (Token Ring, anyone?) – typically degrades to zero bandwith when the collision rate is too high. That typically happens when traffic reaches about half the size of the ‘pipe’ (and is one of the disadvantages of cable over DSL).

    In other words, hopping on my wi-fi does impact my use.

    Would I let you ‘borrow’ my connection if yours was down? More than likely, that’s neighborly. But I wouldn’t let you ‘tap’ my network for your unfettered use any more than I’d let you connect to my phone line to make unlimited calls.

    In short, unauthorized use of a wi-fi connect is stealing. Furthermore, while you don’t know of anyone yet doing bad things through unprotected wi-fi access, would you run a network without a firewall? Would you advise others to run a network without a firewall? It’s only a matter of time…….

  4. Ajay says:

    I generally agree with your critiques of news articles but I think you may have gone too far this time. This statement makes no sense: “The vast majority of broadband customers in the US are not throttled: their ISPs don’t artificially constrain their bandwidth.” Every ISP plan I’ve ever looked at throttles bandwidth at a certain point, whether it’s 1 mbps or 5 mbps. If you’re talking about the size of the pipe into the neighborhood, who cares what the size of that pipe is? The fact is that your individual limit is a small fraction of the size of that pipe, so that’s the bottleneck. As you say, I find it hard to believe that they had so many neighbors (or a handful of greedy ones) using their connection, but I supposed it’s possible in a crowded area. After reading the original article, I think it was a fair analysis of the issues involved, though the symantec comment was a bit excessive.

  5. Packrat says:

    While I’ve piggybacked before, I don’t really feel comfortable doing it unless I’ve got my own signal I’m paying for as well. While you make some good points about the biased nature of that article, I feel like there’s no escaping the fact that if you piggyback without someone’s knowledge, you’re using something of theirs without asking that otherwise you would have to pay for yourself. That’s theft, plain and simple.

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