Rhodri Marsden: Love thy neighbour by sharing your Wi-Fi
Wednesday 18 May 2011
You have to do only a quick scan for wireless-access points near your home or office to get an idea of attitudes towards sharing them with strangers. "Keep Out" and "No Entry" are common names, as are ruder, unprintable versions. One near me is just labelled "No" – which I'm guessing is the answer to the question: "Can I use your internet connection?". But if you have the technical savvy to change the name of your wireless network (the SSID), you're also capable of making it invisible to casual snoopers, rendering this stern grandstanding a bit pointless. Like standing outside your house 24-7 and regularly saying: "You're not coming in."
One recent survey in the US found that 40 per cent of broadband subscribers are more likely to trust someone with their house key than their Wi-Fi password. Which is a fairly preposterous statistic, but there are a good reasons for the lockdown. I once saw an SSID labelled "Don't Steal Our Internet", and while that's a clumsy way of expressing it, it recognises that our connections are finite resources, thanks to data caps; we'll either get warned or charged extra if freeloaders push us over the limit.
Then there are the numerous privacy and security issues. Geeks with criminal intent could intercept traffic coming to and from your devices, and if the security on your computer is poor, anyone joining your router could access your files, too. If someone uses your connection for nefarious purposes, you'd be in the firing line if the police got involved, and while your innocence could be established fairly easily, who wants that kind of hassle? Lastly, some ISPs expressly forbid in their terms and conditions sharing your connection. After all, why would they let your neighbour piggyback, when they could prise money out of them by providing the service to them direct?
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is campaigning against this mindset among ISPs and consumers. It believes that sharing wireless connections should be classed as basic politeness, that it's the "socially responsible" thing to do. There's certainly no doubt that free access to Wi-Fi is useful, particularly when we're abroad and data charges are so punitive; indeed, the same survey as above reckoned that 32 per cent of us have tried to access wireless points without permission in the past. If you believe in computing karma and you've ever needed access to free Wi-Fi, perhaps you should offer that option to others. But how does the EFF answer the points about security and privacy?
Well, newer routers give the option of having one password-protected access point for your devices, and a second, open one for anyone nearby; you control the bandwidth, and naturally your personal use always takes priority. A service along these lines is already provided by BT in partnership with Fon at btfon.com, and again, it's a karmic concept: if you offer some of your own bandwidth at home, you're permitted to use any of the access points belonging to the four million other people worldwide who also use the scheme. It's all a lovely, utopian vision of free Wi-Fi access, but probably destined to be stymied by people pointing out that if they're paying for it, they're the only ones who are going to use it.
The concept of connectivity wherever we roam will be enhanced next year when the carmaker Ford takes the step of transforming the Ford Focus into a mobile Wi-Fi hotspot on wheels – a facility one more usually associates with chauffeur-driven limos.
The in-car technology allows you to share the data facility of your mobile phone or wireless dongle; plug them into the USB socket behind the gear stick and the car sets up a password-secured wireless network for passengers to hook up to with their phones, tablets or laptops.
Ford plans to roll this out to other vehicles in the future; it doesn't fit with the EFF's vision above (unless you display the password in your back window and allow people to tailgate dangerously), but it's a nice facility nonetheless.
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