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Last week, we discussed some legal issues pertaining to wireless networking, including whether “hitching a ride” on an open wi-fi network is a crime and possible liability if someone else uses your wireless network to engage in illegal activity. Lots of you wrote to comment on the topic.

In emails directly to me, several of you said that you intentionally share your wireless network with your neighbors, or use a neighbor’s network with their permission. John V. asked “If your PC found 10 wireless hotspots, how would you know which ones are free and which ones were left open by error?” The answer, of course, is that you don’t – unless the network owner has advertised the availability of his network or named it in a way to make it obvious that outsiders are welcome to use it (for instance, an SSID of “FreeNet” or some such might indicate his intentions).

Steve R. recounted an experience where he left his car unlocked and his CD player was stolen, and the police officer who responded told him that by leaving the doors unlocked he “invited” the thief in. While I disagree with this “blame the victim” philosophy, I don’t think the analogy carries over completely to the wi-fi situation, primarily because there are many people who leave their wireless networks open because they actually want others to use them. I doubt anyone leaves his car unlocked with the intention of having his CD player taken.

James P. argued that “The argument of using someone else’s connection/bandwidth while not trying to access files is lame. That excuse is the same as throwing your trash into a neighbor’s unlocked refuse bin but not searching through the neighbor’s trash. The neighbor is paying for trash removal and that amounts to a “theft of service”- no ifs, ands, or buts about it!” Matt P. counters with “it’s up to the person who owns the network to take steps ie. encryption, mac filter, etc to ensure only computers they desire are connecting to their network. It also seems clear that anything beyond your personal property ie. sidewalk, street, etc. is public space and cannot be claimed as private. Therefore, if I can detect the wifi signal on public property or from my own property; then I have every right to use that signal IF it is left unsecure. If the signal is secured and I attempt to connect then I am hacking and that would be illegal.”

Bob G. said “attaching to [another person’s] network is less like trespassing on their property than it is like eating the apples that fell off their tree into your yard.” On the other hand, Douglas B. said “My demand, in my little realm of my life, is that you ask first and if permission given then usage is authorized.” Terrance K. took a balanced approach: “it should be a crime that is treated like speeding on the highway. The crime itself is minor [even though the penalty in some jurisdictions is disproportionately high in order to generate revenue] and often overlooked [e.g. when the highway is empty, or ALL the traffic is speeding & you’re just keeping up, or in an emergency], but it establishes responsibility for any consequences. Once responsibility is established, the miscreant can also be charged with any greater crimes, as appropriate.”

About half of those who wrote that they have wireless networks said they use WEP or other encryption methods. Slightly more than half said you should be allowed to share your connection if you want to, since the ISP doesn’t limit the number of internal devices that you can connect to your network.

Many of you asked for specific instructions on how to make a wireless network more secure. There are numerous resources out there that offer tips on different ways to do this. Tomorrow, I will post a step-by-step article covering different methods of securing wi-fi networks.

Deb Shinder