Piggybacking is a term used to refer to access of a wireless internet connection by bringing one's own computer within the range of another's wireless connection, and using that service without the subscriber's explicit permission or knowledge. It is a legally and ethically controversial practice, with laws that vary in jurisdictions around the world. While completely outlawed in some jurisdictions, it is permitted in others.
A customer of a business providing hotspot service, such as a hotel or cafe, is generally not considered to be piggybacking, though non-customers or those outside the premises may be. Many such locations provide wireless Internet access as a courtesy to their patrons, either with or without an extra charge, or simply to draw people to the area.
Piggybacking is distinct from wardriving, which involves only logging or mapping of access points' existence.
Piggybacking has become a widespread practice in the 21st century due to the advent of wireless internet connections and wireless routers. Computer users either who do not have their own connections or who are outside the range of their own might find someone else's by wardriving or luck and use that one.
However, those residing near a hotspot or another residence with the service have been found to have the ability to piggyback off such connections without patronizing these businesses, which has led to more controversy. While some may be in reach from their own home or nearby, others may be able to do so from the parking lot of such an establishment, from another business that generally tolerates the user's presence, or from the public domain. Others, especially those living in apartments or town houses, may find themselves able to use a neighbor's connection.
There are many reasons why internet users piggyback on other's networks.
For some, the cost of internet service is a factor. Many computer owners who cannot afford a monthly subscription to an internet service, who only use it occasionally, or who otherwise wish to save money and avoid paying, will routinely piggyback from a neighbor or a nearby business, or visit a location providing this service without being a paying customer. If the business is large and frequented by many people, this may go largely unnoticed.
Yet other piggybackers are regular subscribers to their own service, but are away from home when they wish to gain internet access, and do not have their own connection available at all or at an agreeable cost.
Often, a user will access a network completely by accident, as the network access points and computer's wireless cards and software are designed to connect easily by default. This is common when away from home or when the user's own network is not behaving correctly. Such users are often unaware that they are piggybacking, and the subscriber has not noticed. Regardless, piggybacking is difficult to detect unless the user can be viewed by others using a computer under suspicious circumstances.
Network owners leave their networks unsecured for a variety of reasons. They may desire to share their Internet access with their neighbors or the general public, or may be intimidated by the knowledge and effort required to secure their network while making it available to their own laptops. Some wireless networking devices may not support the latest security mechanisms and users must therefore leave their network unsecured. For example the Nintendo DS can only access wireless routers using the discredited WEP standard. Given the rarity of such cases where hosts have been held liable for the activities of piggybackers, they may be unaware or unconcerned about the risks they incur by not securing their network, or of a need of an option to protect their network.
Views on the ethics of piggybacking vary widely. Many support the practice, stating it is harmless, and that it benefits the piggybacker at no expense to others, while others criticize it with terms like "leeching", "mooching", or "freeloading". A variety of analogies are made in public discussions to relate the practice to more familiar situations. Advocates compare the practice to:
Opponents to piggybacking compare the practice to:
The piggybacker is using the connection paid for by another without paying them compensation. This is especially of concern in an apartment complex where many residents live within the normal range of a single wireless connection. Some residents are able to gain free internet access while others pay. Many ISPs charge monthly rates, however, so there is no difference in cost to the network owner.
Excessive piggybacking may slow down the host's connection, with the host typically unaware of the reason for the reduction of speed. This is more of a problem where a larger number of persons are engaging in this practice, such as in an apartment or near a business.
The piggybacker has the ability to engage in illegal activity, such as identity theft or child pornography, without much of a trail to their own identity, leaving the network owner a subject of investigation for a crime s/he did not commit or have any involvement in. While most persons engaging in piggybacking are generally honest citizens, a smaller number are breaking the law in this manner, making the discovery of their identity difficult or impossible for investigators.
Most access points, when using default settings, are configured to provide wireless access to all who request it. Some argue that those who set up access points without adding security measures are offering their connection to the community. Many people intentionally leave their networks open to allow neighbors casual access, with some joining wireless community networks, to share bandwidth freely. It has largely become etiquette to leave access points open for others to use, just as someone expects to find open access points while on the road.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, ethicist for the New York Times, recommends notifying the network owner if they are identifiable, but says there is nothing inherently wrong with accessing an open network and using the connection. "The responsibility for deciding whether others should be able to tap into a given access belongs squarely on the shoulders of those setting up the original connection.
Similarly, Randy Cohen, author of The Ethicist column for The New York Times Magazine and National Public Radio, says that one should attempt to contact the owner of a regularly-used network, and offer to contribute to the cost. But he points out that network owners can easily password protect their networks, and quotes attorney Mike Godwin, concluding that open networks likely represent indifference on the part of the network owner, and accessing them is morally acceptable, if not abused.
Policy analyst Timothy B. Lee writes in the International Herald Tribune that the ubiquity of open wireless points is something to celebrate. He says that borrowing a neighbor's Wi-Fi is like sharing a cup of sugar, and leaving a network open is just being a good neighbor.
The owner of any wireless connection has the ability to block access from outsiders by engaging wireless LAN security measures. This is not practiced by all owners, and some security measures are more effective than others. More security-conscious network operators may choose from a variety of security measures to limit access to their wireless network, including:
There are several alternatives to the need to piggyback.
Internet access is available with data plans on many smart phones and PDAs. Although it may have browsing limitations compared with Internet access on a desktop or laptop computer, it can be accessed anywhere there is an adequately strong data signal in both directions (transmit and receive). Some mobile phone service providers offer Wi-Fi access via a data connection from a laptop to a mobile phone to subscribers for around $60/month. This allows the computer internet access anywhere there is a signal.
Some jurisdictions have been experimenting with state-wide, county-wide or Municipal wireless network access. Baltimore County, Maryland has recently announced a plan to provide free Wi-Fi access throughout the entire county. Currently, this service is being provided in the central business district of the county's seat Towson, and is gradually being expanded through the remainder of the county. These pilot programs may result in similar services being provided nationwide.
Free internet access hotspots have also been opened by a wide range of organisations. They may be found at Free-hotspots.com FON is a wireless internet router-vending company that has a specific internet/network access sharing scheme which allows its users to share their internet access for free to FON-users. Non-FON-users can also link-up, at a small price. The idea is to create a global, free internet access system.