Nearly one in six UK Internet users has piggybacked off someone else's unsecured wireless connection, a survey by communications firm AOL has revealed.
The practice is most widespread in London and the South East, according to the survey of 2,000 people, and male surfers (22 percent) are more likely to be the culprits than their female counterparts (6 percent).
The majority of those surveyed — four out of five — thought that stealing bandwidth should be punishable, although two-thirds said a fine was preferable to an Internet ban or prison sentence.
The finding highlights the potential security pitfalls associated with working from home, coinciding as it does with another survey, from research firm Point Topic, which suggests that 16 percent of UK Internet users perform work-related tasks from their home connections.
"Clearly you do need to secure your wireless network," Point Topic chief executive Tim Johnson told ZDNet UK on Tuesday. However, Johnson also suggested that people working from home tended to be "more concerned about security, more knowledgeable, more sophisticated than the average", and were therefore less likely to leave their networks unsecured.
The Point Topic survey painted a portrait of the typical home-worker as being male, between 25 and 44 years old, with children and "probably with a middle-management or knowledge-worker job".
According to Johnson, the figures "show that being able to work from home over the Internet is a middle-class privilege [suggesting that] we need to find ways of giving less well-off people the skills and opportunities to do the same thing".
AOL's poll, carried out by human behaviour research company Populus, also suggested that more than a third of the UK's online community — again, mostly based in London and the South East — now has access to a wireless connection at home, at work or through hot spots.
The predominance of the South East in wireless take-up matches the trend displayed in recent government statistics, which showed the region leading the country in terms of connected households (67 percent to the national average of 57 percent).
AOL's survey reported that half of those questioned would most like to surf wirelessly from their gardens, with a quarter opting instead for the bedroom (although this figure is significantly higher in the 18-24 age bracket, at 41 percent) and 15 percent lusting after beach-based connectivity.
The main reason respondents gave for going wireless was "freedom", said AOL, with another significant factor being the tidiness associated with fewer cables.
The issue of unsecured wireless access points recently prompted debate when security guru Bruce Schneier suggested it was "polite" to leave your home connection open to visitors, as long as all devices were kept sufficiently secure as to avoid intrusion.