Tuesday, March 14, 2006

When the Apple Falls Too Far From the Tree

Imagine that in your back yard, out by the fence, there’s a big apple tree. It’s been growing there for many, many years, and it’s gotten really big. So big, in fact, that many of the branches reach out over the fence.

Your next-door neighbor really likes the tree. Partly because it’s big enough to shade most of his backyard as well, and also because every summer, he’s able to pick fresh apples off the branches on his side of the fence.

Here’s the question: Is he stealing your fruit?

That’s a very interesting dilemma. On the one hand, let’s say that you get along really well with this particular neighbor, and for many years you’ve never had any problem with him helping himself to all the fruit on his side of the fence. After all, there’s plenty there for everyone, right? Plus, that means that you don’t have to pick half the apples or prune half the tree.

And maybe sometimes, when his wife is baking pies, she might make an extra one, and they might bring some over to share back with you. Having good friends live next to you is great, isn’t it?

But what if they don’t know you that well? Or what if you don’t get along? That could put some more difficult wrinkles in the scenario, couldn’t it? Who really owns the apples?

Now let’s change the scenario again. Let’s suppose that it’s not an apple tree that’s reaching out to cross over the property lines, but your wireless computer network. These days, for just a few dollars, and maybe a half hour, a couple of computers in a house can be hooked up to a home network. In my house, for example, there are three computers. My music workstation, my kid’s game computer, and my wife’s laptop. Because my wife needs to use the computer while she’s supervising the kids in various places in the house, she needs the network to be wireless. It’s really cool.

But—that also means that the signal for the wireless router broadcasts in a circle, and ignores our property lines. That means that, in theory, someone sitting in a parked car in front of my house with a laptop could access the internet, and even my home network through my wireless connection. Someone in the house next door could tap into my network.

There are some that say that it is “theft of service”. They’re using the internet connection that you paid for, and using it on their own. It’s being compared to tapping into someone else’s cable TV line for your own house. The difference is that cable doesn’t “broadcast” a signal that crosses into someone else’s property.

There are others that say that your right to complain ends with your property line. “If you put the signal out there, I can use it!”

Now, if you (with the wireless router) know about it, and like your neighbors, and you want to provide them with access, that’s probably your choice. But again, what if you don’t get along with your neighbors? Or what if one of those neighbors downloads or hosts kiddie porn, or sends out spamming messages through your network? What if they hack your computers and extract valuable personal information from your hard drive?

One very obvious way to stop this from happening is to simply make sure that your in-home network is secure and password protected. Most wireless routers that you can buy can set this up very simply. Just make absolutely sure that you change the password from the default. If you keep the default settings, you might as well not have the protection.

Some have taken the opinion that if you don’t secure your system, you are giving tacit permission to be hacked this way. It’s like saying that someone who leaves their keys in their car is asking to have it stolen. Fortunately, in this case the law doesn’t back it up. If they steal your car, they can still be arrested and prosecuted.

It’s best to protect yourself, not just from being hacked, but from someone using your network and your access to do something unethical or illegal. Make sure the apples don’t fall far from the tree.

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