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 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.
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.
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