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Wi-Fi users piggyback on free signals | TribLIVE.com
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Wi-Fi users piggyback on free signals

Tribune-Review
| Tuesday, March 14, 2006 12:00 a.m

Matt Johnson doesn’t care if his neighbors “borrow” the Wi-Fi signal from his Shadyside apartment.

“It’s not like they’re taking something from me that I wouldn’t already have,” Johnson said. “I really wouldn’t have a major problem with it.”

Wi-Fi, also called wireless Internet, transmits Web pages via radio waves, which eliminates the need to dial up with a telephone modem.

For home users of Wi-Fi, there may be plenty of uninvited guests logging on. The practice of “piggybacking,” or picking up a Wi-Fi signal from another computer’s router, is as easy as buying a $35 Wi-Fi card and pointing the laptop in the right direction.

And there’s no way to know how many people might be piggybacking on a given Wi-Fi signal, until the number of users slows it down — and we’re talking in the hundreds, here.

Ed Schlesinger, a professor in Carnegie Mellon University’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, likened a Wi-Fi signal to a water hose.

“If I’m trying to fill my bucket, and someone else is also using my hose, my bucket won’t fill up as quickly,” Schlesinger said. However, most Wi-Fi signals have the strength of a fire hose, so taking a couple “drops” won’t affect the flow in any real way, he said.

Schlesinger said all Wi-Fi routers offer signal encryption as part of the package, but most people don’t bother to install it. Often it’s as easy as adding a password to log on.

But is it stealing to use someone else’s Wi-Fi signal• Once a router is installed, the user doesn’t pay anything additional to log on each time, Schlesinger said. Some have compared wireless piggybacking to reading a newspaper over someone else’s shoulder.

Most Internet suppliers in America charge a flat monthly rate, but if they start charging for usage time, like Internet companies do in most other countries, “borrowing” a Wi-Fi signal could rack up monthly bills for the owner.

“In that case, it would be like plugging into your neighbor’s socket and actually stealing his electricity,” Schlesinger said.

Christina McDonald of Shadyside said she can find numerous signals available from neighbors. She just doesn’t feel right about using them to get online, even if it won’t show up on their bill. “I do not take advantage of someone else’s stuff,” she said.

But she’s also not too worried about anyone borrowing her home Wi-Fi signal — “how would I even know?” she said — she just doesn’t want anyone else to be able to look at her work. McDonald doesn’t stay online very long at hot spots, she said, because of the potential security risks.

Scott Kramer, co-owner of the Beehive Coffee Shop on the South Side, knows about the challenges of maintaining a safe hot spot, but he’s also seen the benefits — a devoted crowd that has forced him to expand his shop’s free Wi-Fi access in the three years it has been offered.

“Oh, we actually don’t have Wi-Fi, we just borrow from Starbucks across the street,” he joked.

Since the Beehive is fairly large, Kramer said he can afford to host Wi-Fi users who might buy one cup of coffee but occupy a table for a few hours.

At Coffee Tree Roasters in Shadyside, laptop users pay a fee to access the Wi-Fi connection. Manager Kevin Holloway said the fee — which ranges from $4.95 a day to $24.95 a month — doesn’t seem to keep people away. On Monday, half the customers were typing on their laptops as they sipped their coffee.

“We have people who basically run their businesses out of here,” Holloway said. “Between 2 p.m. and this evening, there will be computers at almost every table.”

McDonald was deep in thought at Coffee Tree Roasters writing a paper. She connected to the Internet on her first attempt, but staying online would have meant paying for the cafe’s Wi-Fi access. She declined.

“It’s not really worth it to pay at a hot spot,” McDonald said. “I mean, you can go anywhere. Coffee’s coffee.”

Logon jargon

Wi-Fi has added a few new words to the online lexicon.

Hot spot : a public Wi-Fi access point, often free.

Wi-phishing : Hijacking sensitive data over a Wi-Fi connection

Evil twin : a rogue access point that mimics a public hot spot. Hackers can set up an evil twin, and then go wiphishing for users’ personal information.

Wardriving : driving through an area to find unprotected signals

Warchalk : literally marking an area with a strong, vulnerable signal with graffiti, like a chalk symbol on the side of an apartment building, to alert other wardrivers.

Get hardwired for hot spots

Not all hot spots are created equal, and not all are equally secure.

More Wi-Fi hot spot providers are offering VPNs: Virtual Private Networks. These essentially create a tunnel around online data, encrypting information so a password is required to gain access. VPNs can slow down connection speeds, but probably will not be noticeable to most users.

The best way to know how secure a hot spot is — ask. Otherwise, it’s smart to avoid sending sensitive data.

Unplugging a Wi-Fi card when it’s not in use can reduce your computer’s vulnerability.

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