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Can I Use My Neighbor’s Wi-Fi Without Permission?

Can I Use My Neighbor’s Wi-Fi Without Permission?

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Question:

I work during the day, and because I mostly use the Web at work, I don’t have an Internet connection of my own at home. Sometimes at night I like to check my e‑mails and browse the Internet. One of my neighbors has an open, unsecured wireless connection. Can I use his Wi-Fi without permission?

Response:

Before beginning a discussion about using unsecured Internet connections according to Jewish law, it must be noted that many countries and states have specific laws that prohibit accessing someone else’s computer or network without authorization. According to Jewish law, as long as civil law does not contradict Torah law, “the law of the country is the law,” and the halachah follows civil law.1 In New York State, for instance, unauthorized use of a computer network is considered a Class A misdemeanor.2

Therefore, any discussion on this topic from the perspective of Jewish law must be based on the assumption that civil law does not explicitly address it. Nevertheless, the question of using an unsecured network raises a number of halachic issues, and is worth delving into further.

Borrowing Without Permission

When you use your neighbor’s Wi-Fi, you are essentially “borrowing” his computer, router, modem and Internet connection without permission. The Talmud records a dispute among the sages as to whether one who borrows something without permission is considered a borrower or a thief.3 The halachah follows the opinion that this person is considered a thief, even if he or she intends to return the object afterward.4

There are exceptions to this rule, however. In cases where the object of “theft” is something that no one (not even a small number of people) would object to someone’s borrowing without permission, and there is no risk of damaging the object, halachah considers it permissible to use it without approval.5

Although accessing the Internet through an open Wi-Fi connection rarely causes damage to the network, it seems safe to assume that at least a small number of people would object to their Wi-Fi being used without permission, and doing so would be considered stealing.

There is, however, another reason why some say that using an open Wi-Fi network without permission would be permitted.

Objects of No Substance

When discussing the mitzvah of listening to the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, the halachah posits that if someone blew from a stolen shofar, he nevertheless fulfilled his obligation. The rationale in this case is that the laws of theft do not apply to entities without substance, like sight and sound.6

(It should be noted that there is a dispute about whether the reason one still fulfills his obligation is because the mitzvah is only to hear the sound of the shofar, and the laws of theft do not apply to sound alone, or because [unlike, for example, the mitzvah of lulav] there is no requirement that the shofar must belong to the one using it.7 The halachah follows the opinion that the reason is because the laws of theft do not apply to something without substance.8)

Based on this idea that things without substance cannot be stolen, it would seem that using a neighbor’s open Internet connection without permission would be permitted. However, other commentaries point out that stealing something without substance isn’t considered stealing because using that intangible object did not cause a loss to the owner. Should it cause a loss, it would certainly be considered damaging or stealing another person’s property.9

Generally, subscribers pay an Internet service provider (ISP) for a limited amount of access to the Internet, called bandwidth. The speed of an Internet connection depends on the amount of available bandwidth at a given time. Wider bandwidth allows more data to be sent and received simultaneously, resulting in faster Internet service. When a non-subscriber downloads large files using an open Internet connection while the subscriber is using the Internet, the reduced bandwidth can significantly slow the owner’s connection. In other words, this causes a loss to the neighbor.

Therefore, although an Internet connection may be classified as something without substance, if using it causes the owner a loss in any way, it would be prohibited to use it without permission. If one used the Internet in a way that had no effect on the owner’s speed, however, or at times when the neighbor isn’t using the Internet, it might be halachically permitted.10

Although less common, some service providers charge subscribers based on the amount of data used. In this case, using a neighbor’s Wi-Fi without permission could cause a loss regardless of the time of day, and using the open network would be prohibited without permission.

“This One Benefits . . .”

When discussing this issue, some rabbis refer to a well-known Talmudic concept that if “one person will benefit, and the other one suffers no loss,”11 you cannot hold the other person back from deriving that benefit.12 In fact, in some instances halachah forces the owner to allow the other person to derive that benefit.13 But as we explained above, in many instances using someone else’s Internet connection does indeed cause a loss to the owner. Therefore, this rationale would apply only in a scenario in which the owner does not suffer a loss.

So, to answer your question: If you live in a place where using an unsecured Internet connection without permission is permitted by civil law, and you can be sure that your using the Wi-Fi will not slow your neighbor’s connection, increase his bill or cause him any other kind of loss, halachah would theoretically permit you to use the Wi-Fi without permission. But why not play it safe? Knock on his door and ask him if he minds—it’s the neighborly thing to do.

Footnotes
1.
Babylonian Talmud, Nedarim 28a, Gittin 10b, Bava Kamma 113b and Bava Batra 54b. See also Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 369, and Igrot Moshe, Choshen Mishpat 1:88.
3.
Babylonian Talmud, Bava Batra 88a.
4.
Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 292:1.
5.
Sefer Meirat Einayim (Sema) 292:4; Shulchan Aruch ha-Rav, Choshen Mishpat, Hilchot Metziah 28 and Kuntres Acharon ad loc. See also Shulchan Aruch ha-Rav, Choshen Mishpat, Hilchot She’eilah 5.
6.
Jerusalem Talmud, Sukkah 3:1; Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 586:2.
7.
Both opinions can be found in the Jerusalem Talmud, Sukkah 3:1. See also Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Shofar Sukkah ve-Lulav 1:3, and gloss of Raavad ad loc., who each follow one of the opinions in the Talmud. This dispute continues with the commentaries on the Shulchan Aruch, with Magen Avraham siding with Maimonides, and Taz with Raavad.
8.
Mishneh Torah loc. cit., and Kesef Mishneh ad loc. See also Magen Avraham on Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 586:2, and Shulchan Aruch ha-Rav 586:4.
9.
R. David Lichtenstein, Kuntres Internet be-Halachah, Chapter 5 (http://ihalachah.com/files/hibh.pdf).
10.
Ibid.
11.
Babylonian Talmud, Bava Kamma 20b.
12.
Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 363:6.
13.
Babylonian Talmud, Bava Batra 12b.
Rabbi Yehuda Shurpin responds to questions for Chabad.org's Ask the Rabbi service.
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Donald a Weinshank 48823 January 16, 2017

VPN. additional note to my 2014 postings The electronic world has become so dangerous that I no longer directly use open networks in airports, libraries etc.for even the most innocuous conversations. Instead, I use a VPN. Virtual Private Network to run on the open network. This prevents anybody from listening in and even (in my VPN) seeing my IP Internet Protocol address. There are several relatively inexpensive VPN programs. I strongly urge you to find one. Reply

Anonymous January 16, 2017

"Do not covet your neighbors wifi" Reply

Jacques via jelimiami.com October 9, 2016

I think the best is to ask your neighbors if they would be willing to pay half of the cost and share the internet connection. I asked that but the neighbor told me that he would be afraid that my router is down, and I'm not home to restart it. Reply

Anonymous September 29, 2016

I had it happened to me a few times before. For one week I was trying to figure out why my internet connection was slow I mean it was running very slow! So I called my service provider a test on the line was ran from what I was told that there was a total of three wireless devices running on my bandwith which I never had at the time. So what she did was helped me reset my moedom and Wi-Fi system to make it down right hard for anyone to gain entry I know this issue is a down right pain and there are those who cannot afford internet service and there also those who just try to "get something for free without paying for it! Reply

Don Weinshank 48823 November 20, 2014

Further comment on use of unencrypted network When I passed along my previous posting to our son, who is an IT expert, he brought up an important issue which affects only the person who owns the network.

“The thing to be even more careful about is that neighbors using your network for illegal purposes, such as trafficking child pornography, have resulted in numerous home invasions and arrests by the authorities.”

This does not speak to the original question about using an unencrypted network but is very important for the owner of the network. I explained how to encrypt a network.[WEP and WPA2]

I should also add the comment that our shul runs an encrypted network. The PW is posted in a prominent location for members, but somebody sitting outside in a car is obviously blocked Reply

Don Weinshank 48823 November 17, 2014

Unencrypted networks As a computer scientist, I need to tell you that, in using an open, unencrypted network, you assume all risk. I often use such networks in public places but with the proviso that I never discuss anything that I would not want to see above the fold in the New York Times. Such open networks are “hefker,” ownerless.

If you have a network and want it to be secure, you are obligated to encrypt it with WEP [Wired Equivalent Privacy] and WPA2 encryption. These are discussed widely.

When I first installed a network, I saw that many of my neighbors were running unencrypted networks. I did not want to humiliate them [See the Mishnah on shaming a person in public and remember that the Web is a public as can get.] I simply knocked on every door in a two hundred yard radius. By that night, all local networks were encrypted. Reply

Lisa Providence, RI July 31, 2014

Ask First I was always told I needed permission if I wanted anything. It's manners and respect.

If you don't ask first, you could get in trouble with the law! Reply

Anonymous NY May 29, 2014

what if I'm not purposely using my neighbors wi-fi. my phone automatically connects when my wi-fi happens to be on and than I get my emails.

Uh huh. Yup. Unless your neighbor has an unprotected WiFi connection, you had to know his/her password for your system to automatically connect. If YOU did not know it, SOMEONE had to know it.


RE: lots of my neighbors have unblocked wi-fi. In that case, my phone automatically connects. This article seems to be mainly discussing unblocked wi-fi. Obviously if s/o blocks their wi-fi my phone wouldn't connect. it's like when you go to the library my phone will automatically connect. Reply

Zehava California May 29, 2014

You said it perfectly, Josh. Reply

anon Israel May 29, 2014

and what about people who leave their network open for the benefit of others? Reply

Beverly Margolis-Kurtin Texas May 28, 2014

It doesn't work that way what if I'm not purposely using my neighbors wi-fi. my phone automatically connects when my wi-fi happens to be on and than I get my emails.

Uh huh. Yup. Unless your neighbor has an unprotected WiFi connection, you had to know his/her password for your system to automatically connect. If YOU did not know it, SOMEONE had to know it.

(I'm a retired computer support engineer) Reply

Anonymous NY May 28, 2014

what if I'm not purposely using my neighbors wi-fi. my phone automatically connects when my wi-fi happens to be on and than I get my emails. Reply

joseph ravick British Columbia, Canada May 28, 2014

tacit approval to steal?... Focusing on one comment among many, if i leave my door unlocked, am i giving tacit approval to anyone wanting to enter my house and take what he or she wants? This discussion, as others have mentioned, is not about wifi, but about respect for other humans, principles and morality. Principles and morality are obviously subjective, but respect requires consideration and empathy, two attributes which are often in short supply in some paradigms. In conflict, a subject and reality with which i've dealt professionally for over 40 years, i often observed how consideration went out the window, replaced by aggression and attitudes reflecting judgement and entitlement. It is a paradigm shift which humans the world over need to embrace if we are to have an emotionally intelligent and competent society. Reply

Andrew Woutilainen Finland May 28, 2014

In Finland, court has ruled that open Wifi is permissible to use by anyone. However, people here abide to moral law and do not.

Blessed summertime to all. Reply

Josh Pactor Seattle May 28, 2014

Shai, Adam: An open network is not an invitation to use a private Wi-Fi network, any more than an unlocked front door is an invitation to enter someone's house. Many Wi-Fi networks are left unsecured simply because the owner does not know how to do so or are ignorant of the risks involved. Reply

Bern Shanfield May 28, 2014

Creating a thief The original question implies the "borrowing" has gone on for awhile. That the questioner looks to continue "borrowing" and is asking if it is alright to do so suggests that this "borrowing" is somehow weighting on the borrower. If not why ask permission? Regardless of any external law, ideal, or standard the questioner is expressing a loss in equanimity and therefore should stop as a matter of self respect. In addition, that this loss of equanimity has continued and the questioner is avoiding going to the neighbor and instead asks an outside authority for permission suggests there is shame or fear present. Seems that "free" internet is costing quite a bit! Reply

Larry Tennessee May 28, 2014

borrowers/things w/o substance in the case of the borrower without permission, what is the law in a case of an item that is borrowed regularly, but for which permission has not been obtained this time (perhaps the object is borrowed every week, but this time the owner is not home).

on a related note, wrt the case of something without substance, you might be interested to know that there is a famous story from Japan (see stories of Judge Ooka) about a poor student who improves the flavor of his meals by eating his rice at the same time his miserly landlord is cooking fish. The landlord takes him to court for stealing the smell of his fish. The Judge rules for the landlord (!) and then has the student drop his few coins from one hand to the other, paying for the smell of fish with the sound of money. Reply

Anonymous Jerusalem May 28, 2014

password unsecured At my previous address I had WIFI with a password. A relative visited whom I gave the password knowing he would use my connection temporarily. Then one day a neighbor offered to down load info via my connection for my relative but via his - the neighbor's machine. And so the password was given without my knowlege. But wait that's not all, another neighbor moved in, unbeknownst to me I now had 2 additional people using my SECURED connection. It started drastically slowing my connection as both those neighbors used the net a lot, and downloaded series of programs. 3 yrs later, 2 months before I moved house and after I changed service providers, I learnt that 4 other neighbors were using my password secured connection! This after fighting with the service provider over the excessive charges due to exceeding my data useage and have a slow connection etc. I paid to have someone come and reset my modem pword. The neighbors said they would share monthly costs...I have yet to see them pay...! Reply

Ed Ohio May 28, 2014

If I see that my neighbor's front door is wide open and I know he/she is at work, I would presume that the open door is a mistake. I would close the door to protect the contents of the home and contact the neighbor.
Likewise, I would presume the unsecured wi-Fi to be a mistake and I would take steps to protect the contents of my neighbor's computer. Reply

Roch NM May 28, 2014

Shared wifi? The first concern is not be a thief. Since your neighbor has not secured his wifi with a password, s/he should be normally aware that in not doing this, the system is left open for others to use, and seems intentional on his/her part. It would be hard to see someone not securing their property, including wifi? Is he experiencing a loss or is he willfully sharing, as a kindness?
The direct approach would be to find and ask the neighbor to definitely know. Then your conscience is at ease. Note that all your usage is tracked and will identify you to the wifi provider...and who else? ! Now is this to your advantage? Now, perhaps does he have lower 'voyeur' motive? Because in doing this, you are also opening yourself and your private communications to whom?
When you find this neighbor, if you are appreciative, then ask if you can pay him and do so. It would be a good arrangement for all. Reply

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