Saturday, November 11, 2006

Surf's up, pants down

Wireless is becoming so pervasive in Singapore that people expect to be able to connect to the internet from their PC Notebooks anywhere they are in a building full of people. That includes high-rise apartments and shopping malls. Starbucks offers it for free when you dine at their cafe, and increasingly, many shopping malls too are offering free internet access bandwidth within their premises. Even the government in Singapore has jumped onto the bandwagon by offering free wireless connection everywhere on the island in 2007, albeit for a limited period of two years.

But anecdotal evidence and personal experience suggests that many people already tap into anybody's unsecured wireless internet access point to surf the net. Many people do it out of curiosity but never rely on it in the long run because the connection is generally weak and unstable. That limits the speed and adversely affects the surfing experience. Nevertheless, there are people who rely on it for all of their internet surfing needs, particularly from a fixed place, like the home. All they need to do is look for an unsecured wireless access point, select the one with the best signal strength, connect to it and surf away.

This is where knowing a bit of something can work against you. People are so taken with the ease of mobile surfing within the house through a wireless router they have installed that they do not bother or do not know to 'lock down' their access point to prevent access from unwelcomed intruders. It is tantamount to keeping the door to their house unlocked, nay, opened, allowing strangers to come and go as they please.

So I don't know who to blame when a local boy got charged in court recently for doing exactly this - the boy had made use of a neighbour's unsecured wireless point(something which would become common place with free internet access points) without permission, or the victim (if one can call him/her that) for not securing his/her access point. Truth be told, what the boy did is VERY common. It does not require sophisticated technical skills such as what crackers may need to have, so I wonder if this court case is meant to serve as a warning to internet users at large to lay their hands off this practice. Make no mistake, stealing bandwidth is wrong but exposing your access point would seem like an open invitation to use, at least implicitly.

We must certainly regret that a 17 year-old boy is now a 'scapegoat' of sorts. I personally think that the 'victim' could have resolved his quarrel man-to-man instead of involving the police and the courts. But I suppose the 'victim' didn't like the fact that he was caught with his pants down. Even if the boy is not convicted (not likely), the relationship between neighbours is now all but shattered. Ultimately, somebody will have to move.

Therein lies the lesson for today - secure your wireless access point if you want to keep your pants up.

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