My Open Wireless Network

People visiting my house have commented from time to time on the fact that at my house, there's no WEP key or WPA password to get on the network; in fact, if you were to park your car in my driveway and open up your notebook, you can jump onto the network and start browsing away. For years, I've always shrugged and said, "If I can't spot you sitting in my driveway, you deserve the opportunity to attack my network." Fortunately, Bruce Schneier, author of the insanely-good-reading Crypto-Gram newsletter, is in the same camp as I:

My Open Wireless Network

Whenever I talk or write about my own security setup, the one thing that surprises people -- and attracts the most criticism -- is the fact that I run an open wireless network at home.

There's no password. There's no encryption. Anyone with wireless capability who can see my network can use it to access the internet.

To me, it's basic politeness. Providing internet access to guests is kind of like providing heat and electricity, or a hot cup of tea. But to some observers, it's both wrong and dangerous.

I'm told that uninvited strangers may sit in their cars in front of my house, and use my network to send spam, eavesdrop on my passwords, and upload and download everything from pirated movies to child pornography. As a result, I risk all sorts of bad things happening to me, from seeing my IP address blacklisted to having the police crash through my door.

While this is technically true, I don't think it's much of a risk. I can count five open wireless networks in coffee shops within a mile of my house, and any potential spammer is far more likely to sit in a warm room with a cup of coffee and a scone than in a cold car outside my house. And yes, if someone did commit a crime using my network the police might visit, but what better defense is there than the fact that I have an open wireless network? If I enabled wireless security on my network and someone hacked it, I would have a far harder time proving my innocence.

This is not to say that the new wireless security protocol, WPA, isn't very good. It is. But there are going to be security flaws in it; there always are.

I spoke to several lawyers about this, and in their lawyerly way they outlined several other risks with leaving your network open.

While none thought you could be successfully prosecuted just because someone else used your network to commit a crime, any investigation could be time-consuming and expensive. You might have your computer equipment seized, and if you have any contraband of your own on your machine, it could be a delicate situation. Also, prosecutors aren't always the most technically savvy bunch, and you might end up being charged despite your innocence. The lawyers I spoke with say most defense attorneys will advise you to reach a plea agreement rather than risk going to trial on child-pornography charges.

In a less far-fetched scenario, the Recording Industry Association of America is known to sue copyright infringers based on nothing more than an IP address. The accused's chance of winning is higher than in a criminal case, because in civil litigation the burden of proof is lower. And again, lawyers argue that even if you win it's not worth the risk or expense, and that you should settle and pay a few thousand dollars.

I remain unconvinced of this threat, though. The RIAA has conducted about 26,000 lawsuits, and there are more than 15 million music downloaders. Mark Mulligan of Jupiter Research said it best: "If you're a file sharer, you know that the likelihood of you being caught is very similar to that of being hit by an asteroid."

I'm also unmoved by those who say I'm putting my own data at risk, because hackers might park in front of my house, log on to my open network and eavesdrop on my internet traffic or break into my computers.

This is true, but my computers are much more at risk when I use them on wireless networks in airports, coffee shops and other public places. If I configure my computer to be secure regardless of the network it's on, then it simply doesn't matter. And if my computer isn't secure on a public network, securing my own network isn't going to reduce my risk very much.

Yes, computer security is hard. But if your computers leave your house, you have to solve it anyway. And any solution will apply to your desktop machines as well.

Finally, critics say someone might steal bandwidth from me. Despite isolated court rulings that this is illegal, my feeling is that they're welcome to it. I really don't mind if neighbors use my wireless network when they need it, and I've heard several stories of people who have been rescued from connectivity emergencies by open wireless networks in the neighborhood.

Similarly, I appreciate an open network when I am otherwise without bandwidth. If someone were using my network to the point that it affected my own traffic or if some neighbor kid was dinking around, I might want to do something about it; but as long as we're all polite, why should this concern me? Pay it forward, I say.

Certainly this does concern ISPs. Running an open wireless network will often violate your terms of service. But despite the occasional cease-and-desist letter and providers getting pissy at people who exceed some secret bandwidth limit, this isn't a big risk either. The worst that will happen to you is that you'll have to find a new ISP.

A company called Fon has an interesting approach to this problem. Fon wireless access points have two wireless networks: a secure one for you, and an open one for everyone else. You can configure your open network in either "Bill" or "Linus" mode: In the former, people pay you to use your network, and you have to pay to use any other Fon wireless network.

In Linus mode, anyone can use your network, and you can use any other Fon wireless network for free. It's a really clever idea.

Security is always a trade-off. I know people who rarely lock their front door, who drive in the rain (and, while using a cell phone), and who talk to strangers. In my opinion, securing my wireless network isn't worth it. And I appreciate everyone else who keeps an open wireless network, including all the coffee shops, bars and libraries I have visited in the past, the Dayton International Airport where I started writing this, and the Four Points Sheraton where I finished. You all make the world a better place.

I'll admit that he's gone to far greater lengths to justify the open wireless network than I; frankly, the idea that somebody might try to sit in my driveway in order to hack my desktop machine and store kitty porn on it had never occurred to me. I was always far more concerned that somebody might sit on my ISP's server, hack my desktop machine's IP from there and store kitty porn on it. Which is why, like Schneier, I keep any machine that's in my house as up to date as possible. Granted, that doesn't protect me against a zero-day exploit, but if an attacker is that determined to put kitty porn on my machine, I probably couldn't stop them from breaking down my front door while we're all at work and school and loading it on via a CD-ROM, either.

And, at least in my neighborhood, I can (barely) find the signal for a few other wireless networks that are wide open, too, so I know I'm not the only target of opportunity here.So the prospective kitty porn bandit has his choice of machines to attack, and frankly I'll take the odds of my machines being the more hardened targets over my neighbors' machines any day. (Remember, computer security is often an exercise in convincing the bad guy to go play in somebody else's yard. I wish it were otherwise, but until we have effective response and deterrence mechanisms, it's going to remain that way for a long time.)

I've known a lot of people who leave their front doors unlocked--my grandparents lived in rural Illinois for sixty some-odd years in the same house, leaving the front door pretty much unlocked all the time, and the keys to their cars in the drivers' side sun shade, and never in all that time did any seedy character "break in" to their home or steal their car. (Hell, after my grandfather died a few years ago, the kids--my mom and her siblings--descended on the place to get rid of a ton of the junk he'd collected over the years. I think they would have welcomed a seedy character trying to make off with the stuff at that point.)

Point is, as Schneier points out in the last paragraph, security is always a trade-off, and we must never lose sight of that fact. Remember, dogma is the root of all evil, and should never be considered a substitute for reasoned thought processes.

And meanwhile, friends, when you come to my house to visit, enjoy the wireless, the heat, and the electricity. If you're nice, we may even let you borrow chair for a while, too. :-)