Neil's News

Open Wifi

14 January 2015

Wherever I live, my wifi access point is always open (no password). There are a number of obvious benefits. Guests can connect without dealing with a cumbersome password. Passers-by on the street get Internet access so they can load maps or check messages. Neighbours save money by not needing to buy their own Internet connection. It's just the friendly thing to do.

Given all the benefits, why are almost all wifi connections locked behind passwords?

Security. An open wifi connection transmits everything in the clear, whereas one with a password uses encryption. This means that an open wifi connection is vulnerable to 3rd party snooping. But since snooping could equally well happen in a dozen other locations, encrypting the wifi just pushes the problem elsewhere. The solution is to use HTTPS websites. These days (thanks to the NSA) nearly all important traffic is encrypted end to end (including this website). So the double-encryption of secured wifi is redundant.

Liability. Some people fear that an open wifi spot will invite criminals to park outside and use the connection to email death threats to politicians, download child porn, and post comments on YouTube. When the police trace the IP address, it comes back as the wifi owner's connection, and theoretically they become liable. But such fears are misplaced (at least in North America), as can be seen by the free wifi offered by airports, coffee shops, and government buildings.

Bandwidth. If the neighbours are using my unsecured wifi connection, that will slow down my bandwidth, right? Maybe, but in practice it is more likely to make it faster. Below is a screenshot of the wifi environment at my home. There are 27 wifi signals, 10 of which are all on channel 6. As a result of all this shouting, my wifi is barely usable outside of the room that the router is located in. If my neighbours would connect to my wifi and shut down theirs (or if they opened their wifi so I could shut down mine), everyone would have faster Internet.

Please take a moment to think about why your wifi isn't open. Be a good neighbour and share the net. Only slap a password on it if it gets abused.

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Legal yada yada: My views do not necessarily represent those of my employer or my goldfish.