Select Page

You open up your laptop computer and see three wireless networks displayed as available. You pick one, click Connect, and a few minutes later you’re surfing the Web – on somebody else’s Internet connection. You might be sitting on your front porch, picking up a neighbor’s wi-fi signal, or in a hotel room, connecting to the hotel’s own wireless network or that of a law firm across the street. It’s a common scenario that’s happening all over the country every day.

Most new portable computers, PDAs and even Windows Mobile cell phones come with built in 802.11 wireless network adapters. They’re handy for connecting to the many wireless hotspots that are springing up all over, in airports, restaurants and coffee shops, parks, etc., as well as for connecting to your own home wireless access point. Some of these hotspots are commercial and require you to pay a daily or hourly fee to connect. Some are free, operated by municipal governments and funded by taxpayers or established by businesses to draw in customers. And some aren’t really hotspots at all – at least, not intentionally. They’re private networks set up by companies and individuals who aren’t well versed on computer security and don’t realize they’re leaving themselves open to connections from anyone within a several-hundred-foot range with a wireless-enabled computer.

“War drivers” make a pastime of hunting down unsecured wireless networks and hopping on, wherever they may be. They argue that they aren’t doing anything wrong and aren’t hurting anyone if they just use the bandwidth to Web surf or get their email, and don’t try to access files on the other computers that may be connected to the network. Others disagree, pointing out that the owner of the network is paying for that Internet access and the “free rider” is in effect stealing bandwidth. Who’s right?

We’ve had a lot of questions wanting to know whether connecting to a wireless network that you just “stumble across” is illegal. That’s not an easy question to answer. Some point to federal law, specifically Title 18 of the U.S.Code (Chapter 47, Section 1030). At first glance, it would seem to address the situation by prohibiting unauthorized access to computers, but as you read further, you see that it really only pertains to certain types of networks – those that belong to federal government agencies and departments, financial institutions, or those involved in interstate commerce. While that last one might be interpreted broadly enough to cover connecting to that law firm if it has out-of-state clients, you may be hard pressed to find anything that applies to your next door neighbor’s home network. You can read the federal law yourself here.  

State laws vary all across the board, and their language is often even more vague. Hwo do you define “unauthorized access,” anyway? One could reasonably argue that by leaving a wireless network unsecured, you are in effect setting up a public hotspot and issuing an implied invitation to use it. Perhaps this analogy will help: in most jurisdictions you can’t prosecute someone for trespassing if he simply walks across your yard, but if you put up a fence and “no trespassing” sign, then you can because you’ve taken steps to make people aware that you don’t want them there.

Likewise, if you use encryption and require users to authenticate to connect to your network, you’re giving notice that you don’t want any and everyone to connect. But if you leave it open so that all anyone has to do is click the Connect button, you may seem to be saying “come on in.”

Last summer, a man in Florida was arrested on felony charges of unauthorized use of a wireless network when he sat in a parked car and connected to a WAP in another man’s house. The story made big news when it happened but we’ve been trying to find out, with little luck, what the disposition was.

Of course, stealing bandwidth isn’t the only (or biggest) concern. If someone uses your network to commit illegal acts, such as downloading child porn or sending threatening emails or conspiring to commit terrorist acts, you could find yourself the object of police investigations or worse.

What if, despite that risk, you want to share all you have with the world, and choose to deliberately leave your wireless network open so others can share your DSL or cable connection to the Internet? No problem, right? Well, actually, your ISP may not appreciate your generous spirit. While it’s not a criminal offense for you to share, it may very well be a breach of your contract with your ISP for which you could have your service terminated or even be sued. Check the Terms of Service (TOS) before you share. Some providers are okay with sharing.

For example, see Speakeasy’s Wireless Sharing Policy here.

What do you think? Should connecting to a wireless network without permission be a crime, even if it’s left unsecured? After all, you wouldn’t just walk into a stranger’s house just because it was left unlocked.

Or should the responsibility be on network owners to put up a virtual “fence” if they want to keep others out? Do you ever connect to available but “unknown” wireless networks just for fun, or when you can’t get a connection any other way? What about voluntarily sharing your bandwidth? Should that be your right since you pay for the service, or should your ISP have the right to tell you “no?”

Deb Shinder