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HTG Explains: Why You Shouldn’t Host an Open Wi-Fi Network

glowing-wireless-router

Open home Wi-Fi networks are still too common. The situation has improved as wireless router manufacturers began shipping with wireless passwords enabled by default, but there are still too many unsecured Wi-Fi networks out there.

Hosting an open Wi-Fi network can cause a number of problems for you, whether you’re trying to do a good deed by sharing your connection or just haven’t set up a password yet.

Image Credit: Matt J Newman on Flickr

Legal Problems

Legal problems are probably the scariest possible consequence of hosting an open wireless network. It’s not likely that you’ll be arrested or served with a lawsuit, but it’s possible.

  • Arrests: In 2011, a man was arrested for downloading child pornography. He never downloaded it – someone nearby used his Wi-Fi network to do it. He claimed that he was innocent and, sure enough, the police let him off the hook three days later. Anything bad done on your open Wi-Fi network can be traced back to your name.
  • Lawsuits: If someone nearby is using your Internet connection to download all the latest Hollywood films via BitTorrent, it’s possible you’ll be served with a lawsuit.

Neither of these is likely to happen, but they can happen. Hosting an open Wi-Fi network is like playing with fire.

comcast-dmca-letter

Image Credit: Michael Whitney on Flickr

Internet Connection Consequences

Internet service providers in the USA have announced plans to participate in a “copyright alert system.” The implementation of this system keeps being delayed, but it’s likely that we’ll see it in 2013.

If you’re accused of pirating something, your ISP could display alerts accusing you of piracy. Some ISPs have announced plans to cut off access to many websites after several accusations.

This is actually a much more reasonable policy than some of the systems in place internationally, such as the “three strikes” law in place in France. At strike number three, you lose access to the Internet for up to a year and are blacklisted by all ISPs for that period – a harsh consequence in today’s Internet-connected economy.

Even if you aren’t downloading anything, others could use your open Wi-Fi network for these purposes and get you in trouble.

Eavesdropping on Unsecured Traffic

When you use a public Wi-Fi network, much of your Internet traffic travels in unencrypted form. Unless you’re using an HTTPS website, people can view the web pages you’re viewing and monitor your web browsing.

If you have an open wireless network, anyone nearby can monitor the unsecured web pages you’re visiting and view their contents. That’s how Google’s Street View cars captured so much personally identifiable data while just driving by, including the contents of emails. The Street View cars didn’t hack into any network, they just captured unencrypted browsing activity on open Wi-Fi networks.

Exposing Windows File Shares and Local Services

When you connect to a new network in Windows, Windows asks you whether you’re connecting to a Home network or a Public network. A Home network is more trusted – Windows enables file-sharing features that allow you to share files, printers, media, and other devices between your computers.

If your home Wi-Fi network is open, it’s really more of a public network instead of a home one. Anyone can connect and have access to file shares and whatever other local network services you have enabled. Normally, your network’s password secures these resources.

Connection Slowdowns and Bandwidth Limits

Even the fastest Internet connections can only handle so much data at once. If people are using your connection for BitTorrent 24/7, it’s possible that you’ll see your connection slow down. Web pages won’t load as fast and files won’t download as quickly.

If you have an Internet service provider that limits the amount of bandwidth you can use (very common in some parts of the world), people on your open Wi-Fi network can quickly bring you to your bandwidth limit – or over it. Someone just checking their email won’t cause problems, but people downloading Blu-Ray copies of the latest movies could take you to your monthly traffic limit within a few days. This could result in overage charges or connection throttling – whatever your Internet service provider’s penalty is.

Securing Your Network

If you’re still using hosting an open Wi-Fi network, the solution is simple: Enable WPA security on your wireless router and set a strong password.

Read More: How To Secure Your Wi-Fi Network Against Intrusion


While it would be nice if open Wi-Fi networks were the norm and we could all access open Wi-Fi networks free everywhere, we don’t live in that perfect world.

It’s been said before: Hosting an open Wi-Fi network is like leaving your house’s door unlocked. It’s actually even worse, as your wireless router is constantly broadcasting the open Wi-Fi network’s name and inviting connections. It’s more like leaving your door wide open with a “Come one, come all” sign in front of it.

Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.

  • Published 01/8/13

Comments (40)

  1. Bubby4j

    The reason I don’t secure my network is because the house is too far from anything for the wifi signal to reach. You have to be on the property to get wifi. It’s over 300ft to the road.

  2. Aaron

    @Bubby4j, that’s not enough reason to leave it open.
    You can setup all your mobile devices once-and-forever to save the passkey and it will automatic re-connect to the wifi any time you’re in the range.
    No reason to leave it open ever.

  3. Kevin

    Ditto… No excuse to EVER leave your Wifi connection open. Unless you want to share your personal information with anyone in range of your network…

  4. Joe

    It is also important to realize that your Wi-Fi signal is a radio wave…it does not abruptly end like a line drawn on paper. With the right antenna and receiver, the signal can be captured at distances much greater than 300 feet.

  5. Jr

    Let’s be communist!

    Leave your wifi opeennn!
    You will help others with no extra costs!!!

  6. Josh B.

    What about for business owners? Shouldn’t a burger king setup have to worry about these same things?

  7. Mr. C

    Businesses with free wifi generally have that on a seperat e network from the business network to avoid such issues.

  8. BEN TEN TEN

    There should be a free Internet service, which is important to a lot of people, that can’t afford access, like there is free TV, that’s just entertainment. This country has it’s priorities backwards. Then people wonder why America can’t get its act together, and continuing sliding of the cliff.

  9. Keith

    I leave open a guest network for people that visit. That way, I can turn it on and off at will.

  10. dragonbite

    You could also do the reverse where you open your network and log everybody else’s activity plus possibly record their login information. Later on this could be used for nasty stuff (like changing their email account’s name to “Sir Spam-a-lot”!

  11. John

    I have always had my router secured but last month my usage went through the roof! I thought it was one of my roommates doing some excessive downloading but he assured me he wasn’t. I immediately went into the router and changed the SSID and made it invisible and also changed the password to something complicated. I was using a phrase and that was probably my downfall. Luckily my ISP was sympathetic and reversed the $88 in overusage fees.

  12. kantspell

    much to do over nutting…check your wifi settin theres aways 1 or more unsecured out there.oh oh there all evil..I live in 20 family buildin, on a good day besides mine there r 3 unsecured, year in an year out..never no probums all this fear was stared by the carries for more individual account fees.livin in hudson couty N.J. 118 thosand people per sq mile.. do the math…

  13. James

    One of the more interesting legal conundrums:

    If you leave your wifi open, you could be accused of illegal activity on that network (that someone else perpetrated).

    However:
    If you are accused of illegal activity on that network, the only foolproof defense is that it is an open network and anyone could have done it.

  14. OverFlow
  15. Darrell

    I ran an open network for a long time,never thought anything about it until after Xmas this year.I saw the across the street neighbors at the end of their drive with a tablet,then a kid from down the street with a tablet.They were too cheap to get internet so they were using mine.I encripted,now no more problem and my bandwidth is back.

  16. Victor

    Many business, restaurants, Churches, schools and some cities have FREE and PUBLIC – OPEN Wifi
    If it is shown to be a open network. ie it has a name like PUBLIC…I would hope some lawyer is smart enough to know that it’s open to anyone

  17. Jason

    I want your opinion on this question. Would having an open Wifi-Connection be ok as long as the name is not broadcasting or would that be pretty much the same thing as well? Right now, I have the encrypted name out and showing. The open connection is hidden but still connectable.

    Also, I agree with some other people. For example, (yes restraunts), but what about other schools or businesses? Even if they have a web filter, would it still be bad for them to broadcast with it open?

  18. thegeekkid

    @Jason,
    It’s a bad idea to have your network name hidden, period. It is extremely easy to see the network name (even if you are not broadcasting), so it offers no protection. Also, when you set your computer to connect even if not broadcasting, it is always sending out queries that could be intercepted when not at your home network, and very easily made into a rogue ap.

    Regarding businesses that have open WiFi, they have filters, and most of the time an agreement page that requires you to say that you are liable for anything you do, not the company, so legally they are technically not liable.

    @Bubby 4j, Just keep telling yourself no one can access your WiFi… there are amplified antennas that can still access it from the road. Just keep telling yourself that. The next time someone gets me mad and I start hacking, I will do so from your WiFi. ;)

  19. leroycorbid

    It is so important to restrict access to your network, there are so many ways to exploit an open connection it would be impossible to list them here. In the last ten years there has been an explosion of user friendly applications focused on taking advantage of the inherent vulnerabilities of networked computing. This allows users with little to no actual computer skills to compromise systems in a variety of ways. Sure, many of these “Script Kiddies” do not plan to cause major harm when they explore these products, but black hat “Crackers” have been romanticized in the media and among a lexicon of youths enjoy a status that is a step beyond that of the high school quarterback in days of yore. Not only do you leave yourself and other users of your network open to a variety of attacks, but you also enable criminal elements to conceal their identities while they use this technology against the common man. Unfortunately it is not enough to just set a password on your wireless network to protect yourself against the misuse of your Internet connection. It is important to verify that you are using the latest authentication protocols to protect access to your network, WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy) is a dead language and should be avoided at all costs. Passwords used by this standard can easily be broken in less than 10 minutes by most anyone with a want to do so. For most consumer wireless networks WPA2/PSK (Wi-Fi Protected Access v2 / Pre-shared key) is the protocol to use. I am sure the HTG has many good references on its setup and use. A quality password is also essential to protecting your network. Words that can be found in the dictionary even when combined with numbers and or special characters can be hacked with little effort. Although it is much harder than cracking a WEP password.. It is becoming a common feature for wireless access points to allow the user to set-up more than one network(SSID+Password) that are shared on the same device. This allows you to dedicate a guest network for those people passing through your home needing a network connection. It should be configured in such a way that clients on this network are only allowed to connect to the Internet and have no access to the local area network thus protecting your personal computers from potential attacks. This is often done when you create the network by enabling a WAN only type setting. you still need to designate a password for a guest network but you can choose one that is less secure and easier to remember because the potential for attacks is reduced. Another way to minimize your “Attack Surface” is to use a “Hidden” SSID, this tells your access point not to advertise its presence to the wider world. In itself this is no way to protect your network, but combined with the other methods can be of some minimal use.

  20. Out_Cold

    WPA encryption is still very crackable. With higher end video cards, you can brute force passwords under 10 characters within 30 minutes to 3 months. So don’t piss off your techie neighbor or he may be attempting to crack your wifi as you are reading this. And from personal experience as the local computer guy, over 50% of passwords can be guessed using dictionary based attacks. Online scripted attack programs and dictionaries in several various languages are readily available and open for public use which means that anyone who wants to illegally attack your network has the resources available to do so.

    Security is important but is a full encompasing area

  21. Out_Cold

    Big fingers hit the submit button.

    Security is important but is a full encompasing area to touch on. Securing your wifi is just one step of many to protect yourself and your data.

  22. Mass-IMO

    I’ve always left my wi-fi networks to be open (no wpa/wep), however only allowing mac address based accesses. I have always found this to be far better in preventing unwanted access, am I wrong in thinking this? Maybe this could be discussed in the future?

  23. Cobaltqube

    Actually this happened to one of my customers awhile back.. His smartphone was set to use open wifi and he ended up losing his email accounts to spam as his phone sent out a req while near an open ap and the open wifi owner was grabbing those passwords and comprising those accts. So even using a random open ap can cause you headaches.. Especially if you don’t have backup info stored with your provider.. He had yahoo mail and it took me awhile to work with him on getting yahoo to help him get his email accts back.. Just a thought.l

  24. swiftprince

    So, just a question… I’ve got my WiFi open connection filtered by MAC Address. Is this considered an Open WiFi Connection with this legal issues…?

  25. George

    When I had dial up, and the across the street neighbor had cable,his wifi was open. I would use a cantenna (@bubby – these CAN hit your wifi from the street) to access his internet when I needed to download large files. After we got cable as well (mostly because I got hooked with high speed access from his), I printed out a message on his computer to come see me about securing his wifi and his home network – his homegroup had the default groupname as well (Win XP). When the printer starting printing out the messages….he got the hint REAL FAST.

  26. wyzarddoc@yahoo.com

    Let’s face facts all password encryption can be broken it just a matter of how long it takes. All of these “protection” schemes do nothing but slow down your computer, make for employment / sales opportunity, allow hackers/crackers future careers and cause general paranoia!!! If someone wants in to your home/business network they will get in. All password encryption does is give a false sense of security and guarantees you’ll spend more than 3 days in jail if someone misuses your internet connection. You’ll have a hard time proving someone hacked into your connection if it’s password protected and only you know the password!!! In addition we have a federal organization called the FCC who has the responsibility for monitoring and controlling radio frequency transmissions they have equipment capable of directionally pin pointing and monitoring so can easily find who’s misusing your connection if they really want to. Let’s look at who profits from closed wifi connections — your ISP who then can sell more internet connections.

  27. calvin Thomas

    oddly enough one of the reasons listed in thie article “may be” a good reason to keep your wifi network open.
    If you are accuse of downloading anything from the internet by copyright holders, and you keep your wifi securly locked, you have no defence.

    If on the other hand you leave your wifi open they can not sue you and / or put you in jail. They can not PROVE in a court of law that you did it. It’s a case of being in a small locked room, or an open pavilian. If you are doing something that they want to punish you for, they have to prove it is you and not some passing car on the street.

  28. John

    I have my SSID hidden due to problems I had when someone hacked into it. See comment further up. If I use inSSIDer my router shows up but the name is “unknown.”

  29. Jose Delga

    A wifi that pulls your MAC address is indeed spoofible! Although it requires some abilitys, it still can be hacked in less than a day! So make sure you put in a hard to crack password!

  30. Keltari

    @Mr. C – businesses like restaurants do have free wifi, however its not operated by the business. There are several companies that provide wifi access hotspots to restaurants and are responsible for their installation, maintenance, and operation. The restaurants do not have access or control over them.

  31. steve

    If you’re going to rely on the “My WiFi is open, so anybody could have done it” you’d better religiously scrub your PC’s of any naughty evidence on a very regular basis. Also, you generally leave behind more than just an IP address, so your defense isn’t air tight.

    Also, if you can be shown to be a tech geek who should have known better, the prosecution can say that
    a: you left it open to hide your misdeeds

    b: in the course of negligently hiding your misdeeds, you left an “attractive nuisance” available for other wrong doers, thus you’re complicit in the naughtiness regardless of you were actually the one on the site.

    c: the prosecution can also say you weren’t really running an open wifi, you just claim it was for a lousy alibi.

    I’d think you’d be a LOT better off trying to manufacture evidence that someone hacked into your secured WiFi spot. Do it before you’re arrested, since the first thing they do is clean everything computer related out of your house.

    Meanwhile, I hate wifi, and I run cat5 everywhere.

  32. Ding-a-Ling

    … And that’s just WiFi! More reasons to jack in and turn off all those 802.11b/g/n signals whenever possible too.

    But if that isn’t enough, there are still other ways an unscrupulous person on the Internet could make you look like you’re up to no good. Just for starters, there are VPN clients and Proxies! For more, you really should look into something like TOR (The Onion Router) to get an idea how it all works.

    TOR is really just a free software solution and a community of people which act together to help hide anyone’s public IP address. TOR essentially lets anyone appear to be somewhere they’re not – like on Bubby4j’s computer/network (and assuming Bubby4j is also foolish enough to leave his router open for remote administration or possibly even run some kind of open server). TOR’s purpose is really to help people in more restrictive countries like France to be able to get content that their government or even just their ISP won’t otherwise allow. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be used for OTHER purposes!

    So if you want to leave your WiFi open (and I suggest you do since I love it when people give away money like that), you really should look into filtering all your traffic to a VPN server somewhere. That way when the little pervert next door uses your network to download porn, any authorities would be knocking on the door of the VPN provider, not yours! (Hopefully, any VPN provider you pair up with doesn’t know how to find you too). But you still won’t be able to hide from your ISP since they only care about speed throttling and (illegal) packet shaping since it’s all about what they can charge YOU for service – not necessarily what you do with it (they only care about what you’re up to once the cops start knocking).

  33. winslow

    MASS-IMO , im afraid MAC address filtering is not protection at all, a quick one scan will show me the MAc address of any computers, phones e.t.c that are connected to your network, then i simply copy your MAC address and apply it to my PC , really easy and quick .

    So again im sorry but MAC filtering is now thought of to be useless

  34. Chris Ieaks
  35. Paul

    Question:

    Can I set up two different wifi devices – one open for guests, one with a complicated password for myself – to skirt theses issues? Or does the fact that both connect to the same pipeline of my home mean that accessing one leaves information flowing through the other open to view? My thought process is that I can turn the open access point on and off when needed. I’m a consultant with clients who come to my home office from time to time.

  36. susan

    I have mine protected now as I too found neighborhood kids sitting outside my house. I go to places like Denny’s and Bread Co and use the wifi. Is this safe? I have a nexus tablet and like to talk books and misc with co workers. We search for books and authors and such.

  37. Ali Tekelioglu

    Lol my neighbor used to have his network open and I use to connect to it but now its locked.

  38. Jay

    @Winslow: How can one scan the MAC addresses of connected network computers without first having access to a PW protected WPA2/PSK wireless network? Is there some device that captures the signal from the wireless computer or smart phone itself?

  39. NJ whatever

    To the idiot saying Hudson county has 118,000 people per square mile..

    REALLY? its 13k per sq mile, while it is quite dense, it isn’t nearly as dense as you for making such an idiotic comment. Then again, we do see what NJ produces so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.

  40. Rick S

    I live behind a gas station and when I got my first router I didn’t know anything about security and plugged it in and it worked fine. Then everybody that stopped for gas were checking their emails. When I found out I thought cool, no harm in that. So I left it that way till I started getting emails about downloading copyrighted materials. Hahaha, A couple of teens were downloading movies and music through my router. I caught them red handed. lol.

    I called my friendly geek and got a crash course on router security and that ended my problems.
    Never leave a router open. I was lucky to get away with it that time.

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