Is It Legal to Use Open-Access Wi-Fi Internet Connections?

It depends on permission and terms of service

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Wi-Fi technology simplifies the sharing of network connections between computers, mobile devices, and people. Even if you don't subscribe to an internet service provider, you can log on to public hotspots or to a neighbor's unprotected wireless access point to get online. However, using someone else's internet service isn't always a good idea. It may even be illegal.

Using Public Wi-Fi Hotspots

A great many public places—including restaurants, airports, coffee shops, and libraries—offer free Wi-Fi connections as a service for their customers or visitors. It is usually legal to use these services.

Using any public Wi-Fi hotspot is legal when you have the service provider's permission and follow the terms of service. These terms may include the following:

  • Restrictions on time of day when, or locations where, the public internet may be accessed
  • Limits on the amount of network bandwidth that may be used
  • Restrictions on viewing of inappropriate websites or engaging in questionable online activities

Using a Neighbor's Wi-Fi Connection

Using a neighbor's unprotected wireless access point without the neighbor's knowledge and permission, which is known as "piggybacking," is a bad idea even if it isn't illegal in your locality. It may not be legal even with permission. The answer varies depending on the policies of residential internet service providers and plans. If the service provider allows it and the neighbor agrees, using the neighbor's Wi-Fi connection is legal.

Legal Precedents

Many U.S. states prohibit unauthorized access to computer networks including open Wi-Fi networks. While interpretations of these laws vary, some precedents have been set:

  • A Michigan man was fined for using the Wi-Fi hotspot of a local cafe from his car in 2007.
  • An Illinois man was fined for unauthorized use of a local agency's Wi-Fi access point in 2006.
  • A Florida man faced felony charges for piggybacking on a neighbor's internet connection without the neighbor's permission in 2005. 

Similar restrictions on using open Wi-Fi networks exist outside the U.S. as well:

  • In Singapore, a teenager received a probationary sentence for wirelessly accessing a neighbor's internet connection without permission in 2006.
  • In the U.K., a young man was fined and his computer confiscated for using a local resident's internet service illicitly in 2005.

Just as entering a home or business without the owner's permission is considered trespassing even if the doors are unlocked, likewise accessing wireless internet connections—even open-access ones—can be considered an illegal activity. At a minimum, obtain consent from the operator of any Wi-Fi access point before using the service. Read any online Terms of Service documentation carefully when signing on, and contact the owner offline if necessary to ensure compliance.

Computer Fraud and Abuse Act

The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act was written in 1986 to expand U.S. law 18 U.S.C. § 1030, which prohibits accessing a computer without authorization. This cybersecurity bill has been amended several times over the years. Despite its name, the CFAA is not limited to computers. It also applies to mobile tablets and cell phones that access network connections illegally.