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Wi-Fi Ethics Unclear

I was recently sitting in my car just outside someone's office when my laptop let me know that it was getting their "Wi-Fi" wireless Internet signal. With this wireless signal, I could hop onto the Internet without any wires or anyone knowing. Nonetheless, I asked if I could check my email and the answer was "yes." What if I had skipped the question and just used their network without their consent? Illegal? Unethical?

The answer to the legal issue turns out to be unclear. I assure you that I could put three bright tech lawyers into a room and get you four different answers.

As with so many issues of tech law, the question is too new for there to be a definitive answer. After all, new law always follows the development of new technology. What makes tech law so interesting is that we're the generation that gets a first shot at determining what the law should be.

Before you can decide what the law should be, here are three facts. First fact - a person can easily secure a Wi-Fi network from casual users with simple to implement password technology. It's included with the Wi-Fi equipment. Second fact - most people don't bother to turn this security feature on. Third fact - the owner of the Wi-Fi signal will probably never notice someone checking email or surfing the Web since the performance hit is negligible.

Since our legislators have yet to set a clear legal policy, let's start with the ethical issue and find some guidance from some metaphors.

For example, if I leave the front door to my house unlocked, is it okay for you to come in without my permission and look around. Most would agree that an unlocked door is not an invitation for you to check out my furniture and housekeeping habits.

What if you're on the sidewalk and can clearly see into my house. Is it okay to stop and look? Most people would say "sure."

What if we changed the scenario a bit and say that as you looked in from the public sidewalk, you saw some clearly private activity. While the law may not have a problem with that, ethics might say that you had an obligation to avert your eyes.

What's interesting about these scenarios is that they've existed just like this since the dawn of civilization and we still debate them. Moreover, none is exactly like finding a Wi-Fi signal leaking from a building into the surrounding street.

The only conclusion you can reach is that there is no core cultural or ethical value that gives us a clear answer. For every metaphor that says "yes," I assure you that there is one that says you shouldn't access the signal without express permission.

I say that ethics should permit you to hop onto somebody's unsecured Wi-Fi signal and check email and do some basic Web surfing without permission. I think it's a fair read of the situation to say that if the signal's owner didn't want you on the signal, they could have locked it down.

Some caveats are in order though. Thou shalt not look or touch their data or anything else on their computer. Thou shalt not download big files because that could cause a performance hit for the signal's owner.

Where the law will ultimately be, we'll see. Expect to see legislation over the next few years.

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