Can people “steal” wifi? A man in Illinois has been fined $250 USD and given a one year suspended sentence for sitting in his car at 2 AM and accessing an open Wifi network belonging to a charity.

This poses several interesting legal questions . Many legal systems now have criminal offences to deal with hacking, generally construed as some form of “unauthorised access” to a computer network (see the UK’s Computer Misuse Act). Is accessing an open network the same as unauthorised access? In crowded residential areas you can view several networks, often some of them are open. What if I access someone’s by mistake? I have heard stories of people who did this. Can there be an offence then?



kieran · March 25, 2006 at 5:02 am

The computer misuse act would require some intent to access the computer without authorisation, which accidental automated connection would not provide.But more generally, I think an interesting issue is whether such access, unauthorised or otherwise, consitutes a criminal offence or a civil matter. An analogy that works quite well is that of trespass; usually it's considered a personal wrong and resolved between private parties. But trespass can form the part of a criminal offence, ie burglary. So too, my using someone else's bandwidth is a dispute between them and I, but my accessing their network through their connection goes further.This said, I think computer manufacturers are much better placed to resolve the problem than law makers. They need to simplify the setting up of wireless routers and networks so that consumers can make their networks secure without having to understand the complexities of WPA. Even a facility to check who is accessing a network would be welcome, as at the moment all of these things are buried in router configuration pages that are utterly incomprehensible to most people.


Lilian Edwards · March 25, 2006 at 5:25 am

I've got more on this at… .

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