NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
Forty bucks for high-speed Internet access? Not a bad deal. But how does free sound?
To a growing number of Internet piggy-backers, it's the sweet sound of pirating their neighbor's wireless network.
Most new computers are equipped for wireless Internet access, and more and more people are opting for Wi-Fi in their homes. But as the networks become stronger and more prevalent, more of those signals are available outside the home of the subscriber, spilling over into neighbor's apartments, hallways and the street.
Add to this the growing number of cafes and other public "hot spots" that offer Wi-Fi (for wireless fidelity) connections and the ability to buy more powerful antennas that can pick up signals several hundred feet away. The coverage in some places can be pretty near flawless.
One study by Jupiter Research said 14 percent of wireless network owners have accessed their neighbor's connection. Yet anecdotal evidence suggests that more and more people are logging on for free.
"I haven't paid for Internet since I've been in New York City," said one friend of this reporter. "Ditto," chimed in another.
And as the practice of using someone else's connection without paying for it expands, it raises the question: Is there anything wrong with that?
Will this land you in jail?
The legality of stealing your neighbor's connection is murky at best.
"All of this stuff is so new, it's hard to say what the liability issues are," said Robert Hale, a San Francisco-based attorney who recently published an academic paper on the subject.
Hale points out that there is a federal law on the books that ostensibly prohibits using someone's access point with out their permission. But "without permission" is vaguely defined and the law seems more geared towards computer hacking.
It seems pretty clear that if you hack your neighbor's password then it could be reasonably argued you didn't have authorization.
But securing many older wireless systems with a password is difficult and even newer ones can be a challenge if you're running multiple computers or multiple operating systems. And, while it may be a violation of the user agreements with Internet service providers, some community-minded users deliberately leave their connections open for others to borrow.
"It's a gray area," said Paul Stamp, an analyst at the technology consultants Forester Research. "By not restricting access it could be argued that you're implicitly making that available."
"A broad statement concerning the access of unprotected wireless networks as being always legal or illegal simply can't be made," said Jackie Lesch, a spokeswoman for the Department of Justice. "It's just kind of dicey."
On a federal level, according to Lesch, prosecuting decisions are made on a case to case basis, mostly depending on the type of system accessed and what it was accessed for.
On the state level it could be more clear. "It's unlawful access", said John Geraty, an officer with the Internet crimes against children unit of the San Francisco Police Department.
According to Geraty, using your neighbor's wireless is specifically prohibited in the California penal code. "It's not yours and you're taking it," he says.
But Geraty said his department doesn't deal with that type of crime specifically and an officer at the department's fraud desk -- whose jurisdiction it would fall under -- said she couldn't recall anyone ever being arrested for it.
Experts do agree that the likelihood of getting caught and prosecuted for stealing a wireless connection probably depends on how often you do it and how you're using it.
"The damages are really the big issue," said Hale. "Are you just poking around, checking your e-mail, or are you doing it on a regular basis and affecting this person's bandwidth?"
Location also seems to play a part.
"If you're in a Manhattan building with 30 apartments that's one thing," said Julie Ask, research director at the technology consultants Jupiter Research. "But if you're the guy who parks your car in front of a suburban house in the middle of the night and you've got the screen from your laptop glowing, well..." speaking of a man who was arrested earlier this month in Florida for just that.
Legal questions aside, reliability is another reason to pay for your own access. If you are a heavy user or need the Internet to work from home, relying on a connection that your neighbor could shut off at any moment is probably not a good idea.
There is also the possibility that someone could have set up the unsecured connection as a trap. Experts say it's possible for the network subscriber to gain at least partial access to your computer, read your e-mails and see the pages you visit if you are using their connection. Any personal information you send online could then be compromised.
So while pirating your neighbor's Wi-Fi it may seem like a good way to siphon a free service, you may end up feeling pretty stupid if you get a summons for sneaking a peek at the latest sports scores or your favorite Web sites are the topic of conversation at the neighborhood Christmas party.
Man charged with wireless trespassing, click here.
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