Our Internet service went off every few minutes for several days. A repair man came and isolated the problem as our modem. We replaced it and were fine. But before that fix, we were tempted to piggyback off our neighbor’s wireless. The big question and one that is hotly debated: is using someone else’s wireless service safe and legal?

On the safety front, the big risk is that any data you share might be stolen. If you’ve designated a folder on your hard drive as a shared folder, that folder could be viewed. Recording your keystrokes as you surf the web is also possible, but unlikely.

As to legal and ethical issues, you will find huge differences of opinion as you search the web. Opponents say that using someone else’s wireless service is like entering a neighbor’s house because the door is unlocked. On the other side of the argument, many people say that tuning into a wireless broadcast of the Internet it basically no different than tuning in a TV or radio show. There have been arrests and fines for unauthorized use of someone else’s wireless Internet service, but the legality of such arrests remains very much in question and is illegal only in some states and in some countries.

If you’re connecting with wireless through a public Wi-Fi spot, like a coffee shop or library, choose “public” when Windows 7 or Vista prompts you to select your connection preference. Though “public” sounds like it’s open season on your computer, it actually offers protection against peeping and stealing. Windows XP users won’t see this choice unless they use software that offers it. Avast Internet Security is the $30 version of a free program that lets you designate your connection as “home,” “work” or “public.” “Public” gives you the best protection.

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