Can you go to jail for using your neighbors’ Wi-Fi?

Maybe. Sort of. Kind of. Maybe not.You’ve done it. You know you’ve done it. Especially if you live in an apartment complex. You’ve used someone else’s wi-fi without asking. Maybe you’re doing it right now. You might be hooked into your neighbor’s wi-fi.

Before we go any further, it’s fair to point out that this isn’t a legal blog and no one writing here is a lawyer. Don’t take legal advice from the internet. That would be a big mistake. But go ahead, be entertained.

The wireless “spectrum” is a natural resource.
The US government’s point of view is that all radio communications are part of a natural resource known as the wireless spectrum. They belong to everyone, just like Yellowstone national park. The FCC controls who gets to use the spectrum just like a park ranger controls what goes on in a park. So, if everything you are using is FCC licensed (and it is, if you bought it in a store) then you have the right to use it. That should be it, right?

But there’s a little more than that.

There’s a difference between committing a crime and breaking a contract. The guys in this picture committed a crime. That’s how they got the matching outfits.

Committing a crime means there’s a law somewhere saying “you can’t do that.” It’s actually not 100% clear whether you’re committing a crime if you use someone else’s wi-fi. Most likely you’re not, but it’s surprisingly difficult to know for sure. You’re almost certainly committing a crime if you steal someone else’s password or hack into their network.

Breaking a contract is a whole different thing. Your neighbor might have signed a contract with his internet service provider saying that only the people who live in his home, or are temporary visitors can use his internet. If your neighbor knows that you’re using his wi-fi, he might be breaking a contract. Breaking a contract has penalties, but they have to be spelled out in the contract and they never include going to jail.

In the case of a business that provides wi-fi service to its customers, you’re always in the clear. A business should have a contract with its service provider that lets them share service, and if they don’t, that’s not your concern.

If you’re using your neighbor’s wi-fi, it might be a good time to introduce them to password protection. If your neighbor puts a password on his router, there won’t be any unauthorized access. Who knows, by being a good neighbor yourself you might find out that his contract allows him to share, and he might share with you anyway. In the meantime, whether or not it’s strictly legal, it’s not really ethical to use something that someone else is paying for without telling him. Do yourself a favor and come clean. It may be legal — or it may not be — but it’s wrong.