Is it ethical to ‘hijack’ an Internet connection?
We look at piggy-backing - using someone else's wireless web connection without their knowledge
In 2005, a West London man, Gregory Straszkiewicz, was fined £500 and given a 12-month conditional discharge for "hijacking a broadband connection". Using a laptop while sitting in his car, Straszkiewicz had connected to the Internet by piggy-backing on the wireless network of a local resident.
Today, many people access the Internet using Wi-Fi wireless technology, which allows a computer to connect to the web via a router, for which service the subscriber pays a monthly fee to an internet service provider (ISP). Although most such connections are secure, and accessible only via a password, some people leave their service unsecured, allowing free Internet access to anyone with a computer to hand. While breaking a security code to access a network is clearly dishonest, how might Jewish law view the unauthorised use of an unsecured connection, as in the case of Gregory Straszkiewicz?
At first glance, this looks like a simple application of the principle "one gains without loss to another": there seems to be no apparent loss to the subscriber (who has, after all, left the connection unsecured and therefore open to access by others) through unauthorised use of his wireless connection.
However, this may be swiftly discounted, since some financial loss is likely. Many domestic subscribers have capped services: if they download more than a fixed amount of data each month, they are billed extra for it. Additional usage by an outsider may push the monthly total data download over that limit, generating additional cost to the subscriber.
Another consideration is bandwidth, the quantity of data that can be transferred per second via the connection. This equates to the speed at which the connection works: the higher the bandwidth rating, the faster the connection. Unauthorised use of the connection will reduce the quality of the subscriber's use, as it will operate more slowly. So the piggy-backer's activities may result in a more expensive and/or slower Internet experience for the subscriber.
But even with an uncapped provision, where the piggy-backer uses the connection so little that the subscriber detects no deterioration in service (or the intruder uses it at a time when the subscriber is not online), piggy-backing may still be problematic.
The Talmud records a disagreement over whether "borrowing" an item without permission constitutes theft; the Shulchan Aruch rules stringently, which might seem to outlaw piggy-backing. However, the Ritva (Rabbi Yom Tov ben Abraham Ashvilli, died 1330) restricts this ruling to a case where "borrowing" an item could potentially lead to its damage. This clearly excludes piggy-backing, which causes no tangible harm to any material possession of the subscriber.
One might argue that when the subscriber leaves a connection unsecured, he is indicating that he doesn't mind if outsiders "borrow" it. This could be supported by the rule allowing one to borrow a tallit left in a public place, even without the owner's permission. However, the Bach (Rabbi Joel Sirkes, died 1640) assumes that this applies only where a mitzvah can be performed, and when the use is occasional; even when the piggy-backing is infrequent, it is unreasonable to suggest that it is a mitzvah!
Even if Jewish law theoretically allows piggy-backing, it may still be an act of piety to refrain from it. The Talmud refers to Rabbi Lazar's refusal to take a tiny splinter from a fence for use as a toothpick. Although the loss to the fence's owner was insignificant, and therefore taking the splinter technically permitted, Rabbi Lazar realised that if everyone were to adopt this view, the fence would cease to exist.
Similarly, although one piggy-backer may make little difference to a subscriber, the presence of many freeloaders will drastically reduce the quality of his service, perhaps even bringing it down altogether.
A further point is that the subscriber is also bound by the terms of his agreement with the ISP: by accessing a connection from outside the premises where the router is located, the piggy-backer may cause the subscriber to be in breach of contract.
In conclusion, we can imagine a limited range of circumstances in which piggy-backing might be allowed, but even so, it is meritorious to avoid it.
Harvey Belovski is rabbi of Golders Green Synagogue
What the sources say
A squatter need not pay rent, provided that the owner has not served him notice and the dwelling is not normally rented out. It is a case of "one gains without loss to another" Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat 364:6, paraphrased
Rabbi Shimon bar Kahana walked past a vineyard with Rabbi Lazar and asked him to take a splinter for him from the fence to use as a toothpick. He refused, reasoning that if everyone were to do so, the fence would disappear. Talmud Yerushalmi Damai 3:2,
l There is a dispute about one who "borrows" without the permission of the owner. One rabbi says that he is a legal borrower; another says that he is a thief. Talmud Bava Batra 88a
Unauthorised "borrowing" of an item that cannot be damaged by handling is never considered to be theft. Ritva, Bava Metzia 41a
It is permitted to take a tallit and make the blessing over it... Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 14:4
This only applies to occasional [use] when performing a mitzvah. Bach to Tur, Orach Chaim 14:4
It is forbidden to steal even the slightest amount. Yet if it is something that no-one is bothered about, it is permitted... But the Yerushalmi forbids this, as an act of piety. Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat 369:1