Is Free Wifi Illegal?
Sometimes when I'm away from home, I'll park my car, fire up the laptop and get online with a free unsecured wireless signal. Is this legal?
Accessing Unsecured Wireless Networks
If you're parked outside a coffee shop, I'd advise you to go in and buy a latte before going online. It might be a LOT cheaper than the fine and legal fees you could get hit with. You are right to be concerned about the legality of connecting to an unsecured network without the permission of the owner. Yes, it's true that many homes and businesses don't bother to protect their wireless signals with a password.
But is it legal to mooch someone's wifi connection? It seems to depend on where you live... In the past few years, there have been arrests in Florida, Illinois, Washington, Michigan, Singapore and the U.K. involving people who have "borrowed" a wireless internet signal.
- Richard Dinon, of St. Petersburg, Florida, noticed a man parked outside his home, using a laptop. When Dinon approached the car, the man closed the laptop. A few hours later, the man was still there, tapping away on the laptop. The homeowner called the police, who arrested Benjamin Smith under a Florida law that prohibits accessing a computer or network without authorization. Police also confiscated his laptop, in order to determine if Smith was merely checking his email, surfing p**n sites, or trying to hack into Dinon's computer. It turned out that authorities did find child p**n on Smith's computer, and sentenced him to five years of sex-offender probation.
- Sam Peterson, a Michigan man who was in the habit of parking outside a local coffee shop, was arrested and charged with "fraudulent access to computers, computer systems, and computer networks" -- a felony charge that could have resulted in prison time or a $10,000 fine. But since Peterson was apparently unaware that he was doing anything wrong, he got off with a $400 fine and 40 hours of community service.
- In a similar case, Alexander Smith of Vancouver, Washington, had a habit of parking in front of the Brewed Awakenings coffee shop with his laptop. Smith was warned by the local police, but nonetheless returned to the scene of the wifi crime. Smith was arrested and charged with "theft of services."
I've had personal experience with this issue. When Verizon installed my FIOS service, they supplied a wireless network router. I rarely use my laptop inside the house, so I never thought about checking the settings. But not long after, I would notice people parking in front of my house for 20 or 30 minutes at a time. This went on for a few weeks, and finally it dawned on me... they could be tapping into my wireless internet signal. I checked the router, and sure enough, it was wide open. I added a password, and whaddyaknow, nobody parks in front of my house any more!
Wireless and the LawSome states and locales do have laws against unauthorized use of a computer or computer network. I found a page that provides links to Computer Hacking and Unauthorized Access Laws on a state by state level, but it hasn't been updated since 2006. If you know of a better resource for laws that pertain to wifi, please let me know. As an aside, it may be illegal to share a neighbor's wifi, even with permission. Most Internet service providers have terms of service that prohibit subscribers from sharing their wifi signal with non-paying customers.
Some people liken wifi mooching to trespassing -- entering a home or business without the owner's permission. Just because the door is not locked, that doesn't make it right to sneak in. But it's also quite possible for non-techie users to turn on their laptop or iPhone and connect to an unsecured wireless signal without knowing it, or without knowing they might be doing something wrong. I recommend that you DON'T connect to unknown wireless networks, and always get permission from the operator of any wifi access point before connecting.
A Victimless Crime?
Certainly it's rude and perhaps unethical to use the coffee shop's wifi signal without buying anything. And it's a little creepy to park outside someone's house in order to mooch off their wireless internet. But should it be considered criminal? If a homeowner or business has failed to -- or decided not to -- secure their wireless, should it be fair game to passers-by?
Some say this is a victimless crime, and compare using an unsecured wifi signal to listening to free radio or TV signals. But what if someone used your wifi to access kiddie p**n sites, or illegally download music? You'd have a really hard time convincing authorities that it was some guy in your driveway, and not you. What do you think? Should it be illegal to access unsecured wireless? Post a comment below...
This article was posted by Bob Rankin on 8 Oct 2008
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Article information: AskBobRankin -- Is Free Wifi Illegal? (Posted: 8 Oct 2008)
Copyright © 2005 - Bob Rankin - All Rights Reserved