What You Said: Do You Run an Open Wi-Fi Network?

By Jason Fitzpatrick on May 6th, 2011


Earlier this week—and in light of the Electronic Frontier Foundations call for an Open Wi-Fi world—we asked you if you ran an open Wi-Fi node. Your responses were strong and varied.

Recently the Electronic Frontier Foundation put out a call for an Open Wi-Fi initiative. They made a pretty compelling argument that, among other things, a network of open Wi-Fi nodes represents an enormous, powerful, and untapped network of connectivity. They also acknowledged that people were reluctant to do so because of legal issues and fear of litigation. We were curious how you felt about it and whether or not you run an open node of any sort. Your responses ran the gamut of “Why yes, and here is how” to “Hell no”.

Not On My Life, Buddy

The majority of you were opposed to running an open Wi-Fi node for a spread of reasons. Khai highlights the one that weighs heavily on most peoples’ minds:

I point to the recent cases of police operations busting the owners of unsecured networks for downloading child porn, when in fact it was others using their networks.

I would think very carefully about leaving a network open due to this kind of abuse.

Indeed. The last thing anybody wants to deal with is their door being kicked in by the SWAT team over a digital transgression they didn’t commit. No matter how compelling the arguments for an Open Wi-Fi world are, the fear of being mistakenly fingered for serious crimes like distribution of child pornography put a real damper on things. This sentiment was widely shared. AbbaDabba writes:

Not much interested in the FBI dragging me out of bed and putting me under the jail for kiddie porn. No, mine’s locked and will remain so. And WHY should I use my money to pay for someone else to get free internet? Get a wireless synch card if you’re not near our own router or if you’re too cheap to buy your own. Quit freeloading!

The unfortunate reality of bandwidth limits and download caps took a toll on other readers’ desire to share. HTG Fan writes:

I do have a WEP (no WPA cause some mobile devices do not support it, which is a pity) key on my network, for two reasons.

First of all; in my country, one is only allowed to down- and/or upload a total amount of 100 GB of data which isn’t very much. It’s easy to reach the limit on my own, let alone with the whole neighborhood using my network.

Second reason; security indeed. It’s easy enough for the average script-kiddie to sniff (and, if necessary, decode encrypted) data. I don’t feel like finding an empty bank account one day or another.

Conclusion: no thanks, no open network for me.

People in New Zealand have a double whammy of expensive internet and draconian laws as Anon notes:

It’s probably already been said but with the current law changes, open Wi-Fi in New Zealand will be a thing of the past.
$15,000 fines and accounts suspended for 6 months if your ip is caught in 3+ illegal file sharing offences. They are also adopting the ‘guilty until proven innocent’ approach, where the account owner gets all the blame unless they can prove it wasn’t them or that it wasn’t illegal.

No way ill be leaving my Wi-Fi open.


It’s Just the Neighborly Thing to Do

Although in a minority, quite a few readers ran open Wi-Fi networks using everything from no precautions at all to systems designed to separate the public traffic from the private.

For those of you that live far enough away from others that Wi-Fi sharing was largely a physical impossibility, running the network wide open wasn’t an issue. This is a situation that Grant, among several other readers, finds himself in:

I am in the middle of nowhere also. I run mine open, but it is in the basement, so, there is very little spill over. I can’t get a signal even in much of my own yard, but friends who come over can easily connect, as long as they are in the house.

Others took a more conscious approach to running and open network. ElegantFowl’s Netgear router has a built-in sharing function:

We provide an unsecured Courtesy network (open to Internet, not to local network) using that feature of the Netgear WNR2000. If I thought it was being misused I might throttle it a bit, but it’s not.

IEEE missed the boat on this and should have built courtesy networks into the WLAN standard. EFF is right to take it on. This tiny slice of garbage spectrum that the public is allowed to use for ‘unlicensed’ devices could provide more capacity and value than all other paid/broadcast services combined. We need to stop auctioning off spectrum to corporations who want to rent capacity back to us at monopoly prices. Open user-capitalized wireless is the way, first with WLAN, then in the “white spaces”.

Teddy P takes a two-node approach with some heavy security backing it up:

I run two Wi-Fi. One secure and one open. I use a captive portal for open Wi-Fi with a captive message requiring user acceptance. All networks are protected by a unified threat management security gateway, including: content filtering, anti-virus, phishing, IPS, etc.

NetworkFusion sets up Wi-Fi hotspots for local businesses and uses the same tricks to share his Wi-Fi:

I run a bunch of free Wi-Fi hotspots for the general public (although mainly run in conjunction with local businesses), The network is semi locked down and uses software for an openwrt router, called WiFiDog in conjunction with a back end called Auth Puppy. I also use Open DNS for content filtering to cover my back.

That’s a pretty good compromise as people can easily check their email or read the news but they’re locked out from causing too much trouble.

As a compromise between outright free access and semi-securing the connection UniversalMonster offers the following solution:

My network is locked DOWN as I’m the only house in the area with a fibre connection, plus, I like sharing my files across Windows machines, and don’t 100% trust the Win7 Homegroup Security.

I am into Open wifi sharing though; so have installed a separate FON Wifi Access Point, but users have to pay to use it (and I get a little cut…). But having one installed, gives me the freedom to use other people’s FON AP’s for free worldwide. Well worth looking into!

Have a strong opinion about open Wi-Fi? Have a tip or trick for running a two-part node to divide public and private traffic? Let’s hear about it in the comments.

Jason Fitzpatrick is a warranty-voiding DIYer who spends his days cracking opening cases and wrestling with code so you don't have to. If it can be modded, optimized, repurposed, or torn apart for fun he's interested (and probably already at the workbench taking it apart). You can follow him on if you'd like.

  • Published 05/6/11
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