Computers’ transmission is either wired or wireless. Wired transmission involves more hardware than wireless, such as optical fiber connectors, jacks, and wall plates. Wireless transmission involves radio waves, satellite messages, infrared, microwave, and laser beam transmits. With a proliferation of wireless devices such as smartphones, netbooks, and gaming devices and the strengthening of wireless fidelity (Wi-Fi) signals in homes, there have been many discussions on the ethics of specific wireless networking conduct—especially accessing unsecured wireless networking service.
For some, the situation is clear; they would argue that wireless systems must be secured, and when they are not, it is usually a result of a lack of technological sophistication and/or ignorance. The common metaphor used to describe this situation is that an unsecured wireless network is like a door to a home being left open. Such a door leaves the contents of the home vulnerable to both theft and destruction. Another metaphor is that of reading a newspaper over someone’s shoulder—a newspaper that the invading reader has not purchased or requested the permission to read. An unsecured wireless network also leaves its user vulnerable to data and privacy loss. Given this perspective, the ethical thing to do is to not take advantage of another’s ignorance as indicated by the other person leaving his or her network unsecure, or to not use another’s property uninvited and without permission. The level of disapproval with this activity varies. Some perceive the activity as borrowing, others as freeloading, and still others as theft. Internet service providers are more inclined to use the latter characterization as unauthorized wireless access deprives them of revenue.
On the other hand, there are those who believe that the ethical issues are grey or less clear. They assume that wireless networks are left unsecured on purpose in a spirit of sharing; thus, these networks are as free to use as the World Wide Web itself. Some who perceive unauthorized access as acceptable further argue that they did not venture out to take someone else’s property; it came to them while in their own home or on a public street. How might they be expected not to take advantage of something that is right there and available? They might compare it to listening to a radio that is being played down the street. The questions then become: Did the owner really leave the wireless network unsecured on purpose? How many people pay for services to share them with strangers? It seems more likely to be the case that most of these persons are unaware of the access they are providing and of their vulnerability in doing so.
Besides the risk of loss of data through viruses and a much slower online connection, a person who has unsecured wireless access might even find him or herself facing possible criminal charges. For example, people who share child pornography online often engage in “piggybacking” (unauthorized wireless access). Thus, an investigation may lead to the owner of the service’s Internet protocol address instead of that of the perpetrator’s computer.
Wireless networking security has broad implications and information security is a dynamic enterprise. In addition to businesses, over 10 million U.S. homes have wireless signals spanning over 200 feet. Bluetooth technology also allows wireless devices to automatically share information with other Bluetooth-enabled devices. It does this using radio band, which is also largely unsecured and vulnerable to hackers. Thus, a crucial part of technology security is cyberlaw. Although these laws are often too slowly created and updated, they prohibit accessing information without permission.
Indeed, some states have wireless trespassing laws designed in large part to protect legitimate consumers. These laws reflect utilitarian ethics, that is, an effort to maximize a positive outcome for the greatest number of people. Behind the laws, however, is a Kantian categorical perspective in that it is hoped that each user of wireless networking will choose not to violate the property ownership of others.
While it is typically not illegal to scan for the location of wireless access points, it is against the law to deny another person service and to steal the other person’s information. “Wardriving” is also against the law. This refers to driving around, looking for unsecured wireless access points (WAPs) and posting these online so that others may use them. In this case, the wardriver might be considered an accessory to a crime because he or she is advancing illegal use of the wireless networks by others.
Basic wireless networking security steps are to (1) avoid sending sensitive information over wireless networks by using secure socket technology, (2) position access points in homes carefully to avoid leakage of signals, (3) turn off devices when not in use, (4) change default passwords for devices, (5) enable MAC (Apple) editing, and (6) use nonrevealing service set identifiers (SSID) and enable wired equivalency privacy (WEP) to encrypt information. It is commonly accepted that manufacturers also have a responsibility to do what they can to enhance wireless security. Often, persons are connected to wireless networks that they did not actively choose. Both sides of the ethical discussion on how people use wireless networks reflect the varying ethical positions that can be found in an increasingly global and heterogeneous world.
- Harper, Allen, Shon Harris, Jonathan Ness, Chris Eagle, Gideon Lenkey, and Terron Williams. Gray Hat Hacking: The Ethical Hacker’s Handbook. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2011.
- Kizza, Joseph Migga. Ethical and Social Issues in the Information Age. London: Springer-Verlag, 2013
- Leary, Alex. “Wi Fi Cloaks a new Breed of Intruder: Though Wireless Mooching is Preventable, it Often Goes Undetected.” Tampa Bay Times (July 4, 2005).
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