Do you ever log on to an open WiFi network that isn’t yours? You’re not alone. While in late 2008, only about 18% of U.S. Internet users admitted to borrowing WiFi from open networks, that number has now grown to 32%. According to the Wi-Fi Alliance, a non-profit trade organization, far too few consumers take the necessary steps to protect their networks today. At the same time, though, the organization’s research also found that “40 percent of respondents said they would be more likely to trust someone with their house key than with their Wi-Fi network password. More than one quarter of those surveyed said sharing their Wi-Fi network password feels more personal than sharing their toothbrush.”

netgear routerClearly, though, not everybody feels the same way and open hotspots are generally plentiful in most neighborhoods. This doesn’t come as a surprise, though. For most mainstream users, setting up a secure network isn’t easy and acronyms like WPA2, WEP, 802.1x and SSID mean nothing to most people and the majority of hardware manufacturers have done little to make setting up secure networks easier for consumers.

Undoubtedly, using open and unencrypted WiFi hotspots comes with a risk for both owners and users. Firesheep has turned the previously difficult art of eavesdropping on WiFi networks as easy as installing a Firefox plugin, after all. Those who own an open network can also never be sure if somebody isn’t using it for some malevolent activity either. In a USA Today article about this study, Chet Wisniewski, a senior security adviser at network security firm Sophos, argues that pedophiles could use the open network to download child pornography and that terrorists in Southeast Asia have used open WiFi networks to “communicate and to remotely trigger bombs.”