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Is Using Someone else's Wireless Internet Service Secure?

By R. Kayne
Updated May 16, 2024
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With the availability of public hot spots and neighborhood wireless (WiFi) networks springing up in every direction, you might wonder if using someone else's wireless Internet service is secure. It's not always clear exactly what the local coffee shop, a municipal network, or a neighbor can see if a person uses someone else's network. If they want, the network owner might be able to see nearly everything that travels between a laptop and the network’s router.

Using any wireless Internet service can carry some risks. When information is broadcast between a laptop and an open wireless router, anyone within range can use packet-sniffing software to pick up the broadcast. Someone listening in can trap usernames and passwords, email and file transfers. Only a connection made to a secure website remains secure, even across such a network, because the encryption originates at the website and extends to the user’s computer.

To secure a wireless LAN from local eavesdropping, all information that travels between the laptop and router must be encrypted using software security options built into the wireless router. In this case, the entire LAN broadcasts in an encrypted format. The router only decrypts traffic to send it on to the Internet. This does not make surfing the Internet any more secure than it otherwise is, but it does eliminate some of the risks associated with potential eavesdropping on the LAN side.

Securing a wireless network also prevents “hitchhikers” from parking within range of the network, then using the wireless LAN to connect to the Internet. Wireless networks that are encrypted require a username and password to gain access, preventing freeloading.

Many municipalities provide free wireless access for residents and visitors, which commonly requires parking in a certain part of town to be within range. These types of networks are rarely encrypted because requiring a password and username restricts their accessibility. Many local neighborhood networks are also unsecured, as are some corporate networks. In cases like these, using the wireless Internet service does open a person up to risk.

To increase their personal security while maximizing the convenience of using third party networks, computer users should avoid using a single username and password for all of their needs. When networking from a secure location, they should assign unique usernames and passwords for each registered site, for email, for banking, shopping and other needs. Most web browsers can remember website usernames and passwords, keeping them encrypted locally for safety, then filling them in automatically when the user visits a site. It is also advisable for people to occasionally change usernames and passwords associated with sensitive accounts.

Security schemes designed to protect privacy and personal information will not protect those using someone else's wireless Internet service for illegal purposes. Every network adapter, for example, has a unique MAC address that the computer reveals every time it connects to a network. It is a relatively easy matter in most cases to trace that MAC address back to a real world user by various means, should authorities be motivated to do so.

Knowing that using someone else's wireless Internet can be risky, users may want to limit their activities on unencrypted networks accordingly. When possible, they should avoid visiting sites that require a username and password, and put off sending or collecting sensitive email or files until they can connect from a secure location.

EasyTechJunkie is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Discussion Comments
By FrameMaker — On Aug 27, 2010

Does anyone know if there is a way to tell what computers are piggybacking on a home wireless internet network?

By GlassAxe — On Aug 27, 2010

@ ValleyFiah- You're absolutely right that free internet access has its downsides. I am a college student, so I spend a lot of time using my computer in the college library. I have a home network set up, which enables all of the computers in my house to share music, but we do not share any other files. Anyway, my first day on campus I signed on to the library's unsecured network to do some studying.

I received a notice from my security software that someone was seeking permission to access my shared files not more than five minutes after logging on. All I could think was someone was trying to snoop through my pictures. Luckily, I have good internet security software and I do not keep anything in my shared folders except music, but it was a little creepy that someone I did not know was trying to get into my computer. I looked around the room and there were probably twenty people in the area with laptops. It could have been anyone. I can only imagine how vulnerable someone would be if they had no firewall or security software.

By ValleyFiah — On Aug 27, 2010

Be warned that your computer may also share information with computers that it believes to be on its home network. This includes any pictures, music, video, and files in a shared folder on your computer. If you are using a public network, or someone else’s network, be sure to modify what files you share, and designate the network as a public network. This will reduce your vulnerabilities.

Wireless internet access has its risks, so it is wise to understand how your computer operates on shared networks. It would be a shame if someone accessed personal files and pictures on your computer and using them illegally. Internet safety is more important than most think.

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