Sophos certainly did a great PR job: Dozens of articles have appeared in the last few days trumpeting Sophos's survey conducted for The Times of London. They found that 54 percent of those asked admitted that they've used someone else's Wi-Fi connection without their permission. What's strange about this is two things: The Times characterizes the question asked incorrectly and doesn't note the sample size. On Sophos's site, they provide both the precise question asked and the sample size, which was a meager 560 people.
The Times wrote, "It discovered that 54 per cent of computer users have secretly used someone else’s wireless broadband connection without paying for it." But the question asked according to Sophos was, "Have you ever used someone else's Wi-Fi connection without their permission?"
There's a vast difference, as I have written about for years. The question doesn't encompass whether someone hacked a network to use it--unlikely that very many people would do that at all--so we're talking about people accessing networks that aren't protected with some form of encryption. Some of these networks are open on purpose; many not. It's a very imprecise question, and worse in the Times's inaccurate restatement. We don't know that anyone stole access who answered this question; the Times assumes they did.
With this small a survey size, and no information provided on demographics, this reveals essentially nothing about people's behaviors. In the UK, accessing a network without permission is illegal; the Times notes just 11 people have been arrested for such actions. I'd like to see a sample size of 20,000 regular users of the Internet outside their homes. I expect the number is much higher than 54 percent. But it still doesn't really tell us much except that it's easy to use Wi-Fi when a network is intentionally or unintentionally left unprotected against access.
A Sophos manager has this rather specious soundbite, too: "Stealing Wi-Fi internet access may feel like a victimless crime, but it deprives ISPs of revenue."