When I moved into my apartment three years ago, the first thing I did after I tipped the movers was sit down on a box, crack open my laptop and sniff the air for wi-fi signals. And I found them: my apartment was chock-full of delicious, invisible data, ripe for the plucking. You couldn't say I made a conscious decision at that exact moment to become a criminal. But it definitely got a lot harder not to be a criminal.
For the next three years, I didn't pay for Internet access. Instead, I got online via the unsecured wireless networks of my neighbors. This didn't seem illegal at the time--I mean, those signals were streaming through my apartment--but it is an actual, bona fide crime. Last year a man in Cedar Springs, Mich., was fined $400 for mooching off somebody else's wi-fi--a police officer spotted him laptop-surfing in a parked car. Apparently that violates Title 18, Part 1, Chapter 47 of the United States Code, which covers anybody who "intentionally accesses a computer without authorization or exceeds authorized access." Whatever that means--the law was passed in 1986, back when people were worried about mutually assured destruction and Matthew Broderick hacking into the WOPR. But I still felt like kind of a desperado.
Illegal or not, it was definitely unethical. Not so unethical that I stopped doing it, though. True, my browsing slowed down my neighbors' connections from time to time, but I tried to keep from transmitting any big files till late at night. And leaving your network open can put your personal data at risk--but I didn't want their data; I wanted their bandwidth! If it was so precious to them, they should have put a password on it! Don't look at me like that--according to the Wi-Fi Alliance, 53% of people surveyed said they'd done the same thing.
Mine wasn't a particularly sociable apartment building, but wi-fi transcends urban alienation. You can draw your blinds and grunt at me on the stairs all you want, No. 7, but I can see your network just fine. Some people thought of creative names for their networks: ParisBrooklyn, MessageInaBottle. Some were boring: linksys, NETGEAR, default. I was always happy to see the boring ones, because the people who don't bother thinking of clever names for their home networks are the same people who don't bother to password-protect them. Anybody who calls his hot spot WebOfDarkness isn't going to give me any wireless love. I think YouHavSomNerv was on to me too.
You don't fly first class when you're stealing bandwidth. Wi-fi hot spots are large--about the size of a football field--but those signals had to pass through a lot of masonry before they got to my laptop. Wi-fi operates on an unlicensed frequency, so it has to deal with interference from baby monitors and microwave ovens and cordless phones too. As a result, my Internet access would vanish and reappear like a will-o'-the-wisp, even when I engaged OS X's excitingly named "interference robustness" feature. I always seemed to lose connectivity just when I was about to send a crucial e-mail--it's embarrassing to run down a city street waving your laptop around like a crazy person, but it's amazing how unselfconscious you get when you have to find one lousy bar of wi-fi in the next two minutes or you're going to get fired. (A website called ThinkGeek.com sells a T shirt with a battery-powered wi-fi detector that displays the ambient signal strength wherever you happen to be standing. It's supercool, though if I'm too cheap to pay for broadband, I'm definitely too cheap to spend $30 on a T shirt.)
This isn't supposed to be a problem anyway. A couple of years ago, some starry-eyed technology pundits--myself included--announced the dawning of the age of free municipal wi-fi networks, when every American city would have its own city-size hot spot. It would be too cheap to meter! But the legal, technological, financial and political practicalities of municipal wi-fi have been much harder to work out than anyone expected. Even mighty Google had to back down from its plan to flood all of San Francisco with free wi-fi. Downtown Spokane, Wash., is online, though, so I guess there's still hope.
As for me, I've joined the straight world, sort of. When I moved into a new apartment a few weeks ago, I decided my financial situation was stable enough that I could start paying for my data again, though my frequent conversations with EarthLink tech support make me miss the old days of trying to crack YouHaveSomNerv's password. In an attempt to achieve some kind of karmic balance, I have left my network open to any neighbors who want to mooch off it. Which, believe it or not, is a violation of EarthLink's terms of service. What do you know--I'm still a desperado after all.