The Associated Press discusses the privacy and security problems that can arise from unsecured (non-password-protected) Wi-Fi systems:
Law enforcement officials say the case is a cautionary tale. Their advice: Password-protect your wireless router. Plenty of others would agree. The Sarasota, Fla. man, for example, who got a similar visit from the FBI last year after someone on a boat docked in a marina outside his building used a potato chip can as an antenna to boost his wireless signal and download an astounding 10 million images of child porn, or the North Syracuse, N.Y., man who in December 2009 opened his door to police who’d been following an electronic trail of illegal videos and images. The man’s neighbor pleaded guilty April 12. […]
It’s unknown how often unsecured routers have brought legal trouble for subscribers. Besides the criminal investigations, the Internet is full of anecdotal accounts of people who’ve had to fight accusations of illegally downloading music or movies. […]
Experts say the more savvy hackers can go beyond just connecting to the Internet on the host’s dime and monitor Internet activity and steal passwords or other sensitive information.
A study released in February provides a sense of how often computer users rely on the generosity — or technological shortcomings — of their neighbors to gain Internet access. The poll conducted for the Wi-Fi Alliance, the industry group that promotes wireless technology standards, found that among 1,054 Americans age 18 and older, 32 percent acknowledged trying to access a Wi-Fi network that wasn’t theirs. An estimated 201 million households worldwide use Wi-Fi networks, according to the alliance.
The same study, conducted by Wakefield Research, found that 40 percent said they would be more likely to trust someone with their house key than with their Wi-Fi network password. […]
The government’s Computer Emergency Readiness Team recommends home users make their networks invisible to others by disabling the identifier broadcasting function that allows wireless access points to announce their presence. It also advises users to replace any default network names or passwords, since those are widely known, and to keep an eye on the manufacturer’s website for security patches or updates.