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Community Newsletter: Q&A forum: 10/28/05 If a wireless network signal is available, can I use it?

by: Lee Koo (ADMIN) October 26, 2005 4:16 PM PDT

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10/28/05 If a wireless network signal is available, can I use it?

by Lee Koo (ADMIN) ModeratorCNET staff - 10/26/05 4:16 PM


If I am at home and my wireless computer picks up a nearby network, is it OK to use it? Are there any laws against this? If I do use it, can the person with the service see who is using it and what I am looking at?

Submitted by: Steve P.


Hello, your first question is a variable one to say the least ("If I am at home and my wireless computer picks up a nearby network, is it OK to use it?"). This highly depends on where you live, and whom you live by. ("Are there any laws against this?") I will try to answer both questions, since they are related. As I mentioned, it depends on where you live. We have no law against picking up any open airwave signal. This does not make it OK, though; morals are another issue. Do you want to use someone elses connection without their knowledge? If a neighbor knows you are picking up the connection and doesn't mind sharing it, things might be all right. However, there are other things to consider, mainly security, yours and theirs. There is a high possibility of them or someone else accessing other PCs on your home network, including your files and folders. If someone shares your connection and decides to do whatever bad things one can do on the Internet, you could be a target for blame or simply a target. Either way, this needs close consideration.

War driving is another issue that affects wireless, which is where hackers, etc... drive by looking for a vulnerable wireless connection to hack, in which a hacker may use your PC for his\her purposes. Eg-hijacking. If you share a connection, especially without knowledge of whose it is, they may not be protected against hackers, and other infiltrating baddies. You will make yourself vulnerable to all this as well.

Since security is a major issue with this, you should always use a firewall which does wonders for keeping out hackers and other intruders. XP has a built in firewall which by default is (usually) turned on. You may notice a small red shield in the lower right toolbar. There are a few good (FREE) firewalls also. Zone Alarm has a slender version for free use and seems to be one of the best out there. There are numerous others as well. Usually, without a firewall, wireless or otherwise, there is a 16 minute time recommendation to be on before you are considered hacked. Personally, I won't connect without one.

Antivirus is another major factor. XP does not have anti-virus software pre-installed but you may get a free one also. AVG is one of the many. There is also EFS:Encrypting file system. This is a feature of Windows XP but not on the previous, 98 \95 or ME. I will try to explain it in a shorter, more understanding term. You can encrypt files or folders on your computer which scrambles the information so only people you specify can read them. You may set a password for an encrypted file or folder also. But always remember, write the password down or you yourself cannot access the file if forgotten! If a hacker tries to read these files, (in theory) he\she will not gain access to them. Most often, for an average user, a hacker will not take the time and effort needed to try and decrypt a file or folder that is not of major importance.

Automatic Windows updates are also a must. Keeping up with fixes for security issues is not something that should be overlooked. Microsoft puts these fixes out usually knowing of an issue that has already or is about to occur.

Anti spyware is another consideration. A free Adaware version is available and works wonderfully. There are numerous others to choose from and worth a look if you don't already have a good one. Spyware can be a danger and should be guarded against. You can leak your personal information to certain spywares that may actually get your credit card number or other information. I have seen this happen to friends of mine. Many spywares simply track which sites you visit for business purposes but it's best to keep it all away.

In general, if you and your neighbor are both protected well, and don't mind sharing a connection (keeping in mind the issues above, and that it is not illegal where you live or with the service provider) then a mutual sharing can be alright. Many times though, a connection may degrade with more users connecting to it. With wireless, depending on the signal, you may pick it up from neighbor A but neighbor B starts getting the signal and suddenly the connection can be all but useless. There are many factors involved with this, how strong the origin of the connection, types of weather, etc...

As for the last part of your question, (If I do use it, can the person with the service see who is using it and what I am looking at? ) The answer is YES. You can be seen on their pc. If they have proper knowledge of how to check for other PCs connected to the network, they may very well catch you.

There are hordes of different software and methods for both parties, one to try and use the connection without being detected, and the other to stop and/or see who is using the connection. One doesn't have to be a specialist to see who is using their PC connection. I learned in 3 days, the basic ins and outs of seeing if I'm hacked. Once again, this is also a moral issue and if you think about it, do you want to go through all the trouble of using another person's connection without their knowledge?

It would be, in my opinion, if you surely want to use the neighbor's connection, is to ask them. If they get mad, don't be surprised as many people feel like they are being violated. If they are ok with it, discuss with them if they take secure measures and explain that (hopefully) you will too. You can then share in harmony.

Hope this helped

Submitted by: Paul K.

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