Real Simple asked a panel of experts to offer their two cents.

Illustration of neighbors sharing Wi-Fi

Q. My neighbor doesn’t password-protect his Wi-Fi. Can I use it?

“Only if you ask permission. Most tech-savvy people know that they should password-protect their Wi-Fi, so if you use your neighbor’s, you may be taking advantage of his vulnerability. Besides, if you need it, plenty of libraries and coffee shops offer free Internet service. Of course, if your neighbor has said he’s open to others using his network and intentionally set no password, that’s a different story. But if your use depends on his ignorance, resist the temptation.”
—Irina Raicu, the Internet ethics program manager at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, in California.

“No, because it’s not a victimless crime. You’re cutting into your neighbor’s bandwidth and potentially slowing down or interrupting his service. Also consider how your actions affect the service provider. When traffic increases to a network, the provider has to upgrade it. If you contribute to that traffic without paying, the provider won’t have funds to cover the improvements. Internet providers would go out of business if everyone stole Wi-Fi.”
—Darin Steffl, the owner and operator of Minnesota Wi-Fi, an ISP provider in Kasson, Minnesota.

“The fact that there’s no password doesn’t make your neighbor’s Wi-Fi fair game. If I leave my front door open, does that mean you can take my belongings? Of course not. In fact, depending on where you live, logging on to your neighbor’s network could be considered a felony theft. In California it could land you in prison for more than a year and cost you up to $10,000 in fines. Getting caught may be unlikely, but that doesn’t make the actions OK.”
—Michael K. Cernyar, a Los Angeles–based attorney specializing in computer and cyber crimes.