Ethics and Information Technology

, Volume 9, Issue 3, pp 179–186 | Cite as

Theft in a wireless world

  • Luc Small


I explore philosophically the phenomenon of home wireless networks as used to share broadband Internet connections. Because such networks are frequently unsecured, third parties can use them to access the Internet. Here I consider carefully whether this kind of behaviour should be properly called theft. I begin with a brief non-technical introduction to 802.11 wireless networks. Subsequently, I present a four part argument – appealing to the unsecured nature of the networks discussed, entrenched software and hardware behaviours, trespass law, and the openness of ‹public park’ spectrum – suggesting that this kind of behaviour is permissible and should not be construed as theft. Substantively, I conclude that, despite the quite compelling considerations that these arguments bring to bear, this behaviour is theft. Additionally, I draw attention to significant flaws in the design and implementation of wireless technology (specifically in the out-of-the-box configuration for wireless access points and in the wireless connectivity of early versions of Windows XP) that facilitate the intentional and unintentional theft of Internet bandwidth. I suggest some simple mechanisms that could be incorporated into the technology which would serve to remove the ethical ambiguity in its usage by third parties, including adding the ability for a network owner to explicitly mark her network as not for public use,␣and changes to default hardware and software behaviours. I conclude by encouraging increased use of value-sensitive design practices in the development of future wireless technologies.


802.11 broadband ethics internet morality network theft value WEP wireless WPA 



Australian Communications Authority


Compact Disc


Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers


International Scientific and Medical


Wired Equivalent Privacy


Wireless Fidelity


Wi-Fi Protected Access Pre-Shared Key


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Philosophy Program, School of Humanities, Faculty of ArtsThe Australian National UniversityCanberraAustralia

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