29 March 2006

WiFi "Theft"

Over the last week there has been something of a fuss over a guy getting fined for "wardriving." Wardriving is the act of driving around until you find someplace where someone has not secured their WiFi connection and using it to access the internet. Why would someone do this? Well, believe it or not, some geeks do it for fun. Some people do it because they don't have their own access to the net or their access is of limited speed. There is also the potential that people are using it to hide illicit activities such as hacking or downloading porn. However, in the case in Illinois it doesn't appear that anything along those lines was occurring. At least there was no charge for it and I'm pretty sure they took his computer and checked it out.

Why then did the prosecution go forward? "The prosecution appears to have been a largely symbolic one for deterrent effect: the defendant pled guilty and received a $250 fine plus a year of court supervision, and the prosecutors released statements to the press about how this should be a warning to others." More facts of the case can be found at ars technica.

Technically the charge was about the uninvited use of another's network. This has set off a number of derisive comments around the blogs and this humorous conversation on TWIT which, in addition to pointing out how this law is nearly impossible to enforce also points out how hard it might actually be to not break this law unless you disable your computer's reception of WiFi. One blogger compares this conviction to convicting someone for using water from a sprinkler which sprays into a public area. A comment over at Orin's talks about how the law must choose a fence-in or fence-out method.

Why are these laws in place? Well, one reason could be for law enforcement purposes; if you can restrict people to the use of only their own web provider it is much easier to prove who is doing something wrong over the internet. However, I suspect these laws are driven more by business interests than anything else. The internet provider doesn't want people to access free internet; they've been fairly blatant about this in pushing to pre-empt low cost or free internet provided by municipalities (see the Pennsylvania Plan).

Where do I stand? Well, I personally believe that if you don't protect your network you are inviting others to use it. How do I come to this conclusion? Well, to begin with protecting a network is very simple and, while the protection may be fairly easy to crack, provides a clear indicator that the person providing the network does not want you to access the bandwdith he is paying for. As well, the person who has set up the network has already paid for every bit of access that runs through it. How he uses it is his business and the internet provider doesn't really have a claim of theft. It may have a claim of contract breach against it's internet customer if the contract specifies no open WiFi network, but it doesn't have a claim against a third party user of the already paid for access.

In my office building I have a WiFi network set up so my secretary can access the internet and I can use my portable computer. There are 5 other networks set up in the same building. One is protected and one is purely computer to computer- 3 are open access. The problem I run into is that the office next door must have some sort of booster or something attached to his broadcaster because it is always as powerful as my signal and sometimes more powerful. About 30% of the time my computers will go to that network instead of mine automatically. I'm sure there's some way to fix this, but it's not really my fault. That office didn't protect its network and it obviously has range to reach my office (and the whole building for that matter). Why should I be responsible for that?


Anonymous said...

Ken, Two points. In the “hacker” community, “wardriving” usually means just looking for open networks and recording their location. It does not mean actually using them.

The justification that a law requires that access to networks be limited in order to make “law enforcement’s” job easier is somewhat weak, as this essentially makes it a rational purpose of a law to restrict the freedom of others to conduct an otherwise legitimate activity in order to simply detect some evil.

Butch Howard said...

Why should I be responsible for that?

For the same reason you should be responsible for entering an apartment after trying all the doors in the hall until you found one that is unlocked. Even if you live in the building and are trying doors because you are blind folded and have trouble finding your own door.

The residents should lock their doors for their own protection, but should not be required to in order to keep you out. You should take off your blind fold and not attempt entering where you have no permission.

You should uncheck the connection property setting that says 'automatically connect to non-preferred networks' (take off the blind fold).

Anonymous said...

I've always thought that the wrong of using another's network was that you are effectively cheating the service provider. To me, it follows that Ken is doing nothing wrong because he is paying for wireless access to someone. If he were using the other network without paying anyone, he would be getting the benefit with paying a fee to anyone.

Anonymous said...

Sssshhhhh. Do you want Eliot Spitzer to find out about this? I'm sure he could find a way to take over jurisdiction.

Anonymous said...

"illicit acts such as...downloading porn". Well kiddie porn, yes, but are there states which have criminalized downloading adult porn where the laws withstood Constitutional challenge?

Ken Lammers said...

Anon1: Sorry, I was in a hurry and was imprecise with my usage of terms. And, yes, I think passing laws to make life easier for law enforcement is pretty weak as well. However, I also know that it happens every time the Virginia General Assembly is in session (I can't speak for other States).

Ken Lammers said...


Actually, in your closed door example the mere fact that the door is closed is more the equivalent of putting some sort of protection on the WiFi connection. The closed door (protection on the WiFi) announces to the world that it is not welcome. What laws like this one do is punish me if the occupant of the apartment is playing music so loud I can clearly hear it and I'm dancing to it either in the hall (a public area) or my own apartment.