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Friday, July 08, 2005

Sympathy for a Wifi Pirate

Benjamin Smith III, 41, faces a pretrial hearing this month following his April arrest on charges of unauthorized access to a computer network, a third-degree felony.

Police say Smith admitted using the Wi-Fi signal from the home of Richard Dinon, who had noticed Smith sitting in an SUV outside Dinon's house using a laptop computer.
-- Man Charged With Stealing Wifi Signal []

This has been a debate raging for a while - is the usage of a someone else's wifi network a crime?

As someone who has used another's network as well as set up his own wireless network, I gotta say - there's no way this should be illegal. And here's why:

1) Every wireless router on the planet can be made to use WEP and a password. If you can't be bothered to learn how to set it up, then get the thirteen year old who lives down the block to do it for you. If you don't want to do it, then don't complain when you get uninvited guests.

The counter-analogy usually made here is "just because I leave my front door unlocked doesn't give you the right to rob me". Which is true. But we aren't talking about doors and locks here, we're talking about technology and frequencies. At some point, the owner of technology has to take responsibility for using it. If you recorded your significant other having sex and then broadcasted the results via HAM radio so that you could listen to it throughout the house - you wouldn't blame the nearby operator for listening in, would you?

Or to use a less crazy example - if my wireless phone picks up on your wireless connection, are you going to sue me for invading your privacy?

Wifi is a convenience, but it's also a security risk. That's the nature of the technology. By using that technology you're accepting both sides of the coin.

2) It's how the technology is designed. If this is a crime, then someone needs to haul my Mini off to jail. Despite having access to no less than three different wireless networks in the neighborhood, it general prefers one that isn't my own. Damn thing is like a dog which prefers someone else's lawn. Truth is, lots of wifi software is designed to surf insecure networks and pick the one of least resistence (why the Mini prefers one across the street and not under it's own desk I have no idea). Now, I'm sure there's some configuration I can continue to tinker with to get the Mini to behave, but the reason it's doing this is because those networks are insecure. Therefore, the software has absolutely no reason to believe that it shouldn't. Considering we're talking about a computer and not a dog, this shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone.

3) I'm a geek, not a social worker. I just make this statement because I know one of the responses would be "well, why don't you go to your neighbors and explain this to them?" For one thing, it's not my responsibility. If they can't get their printer to work, or can't figure out how to download Firefox or setup their new wireless router - they're on their own. I actually charge for that kind of work, and for the record - so does Best Buy. For another thing, I don't even know who to talk with. Wireless doesn't exactly have a signature I use to hunt down the owner. I live in a fairly dense neighborhood and I'm not about to start canvassing the neighborhood looking for the person who couldn't be bothered with their own network security.

Now if someone bothers to setup a proper password and then another person hacks past that to enter their network - go ahead and take 'em to court. Then at least they've used the technology responsibily and someone made an obvious malicious act to circumvent it. However if someone doesn't want to understand technology at least enough to use it without harming themselves in the process, they've got no business with it in their home.


Alpha said...

The story doesn't say if the guy hacked into Dinon's network or if the network was unprotected.

If it's the former, the guy should be thrown in jail; no two ways about it. However, even if the network was open or rather "unsecured" that doesn't give the guy to use it. Not a punishable offense (certainly not jail time) although a good fine would serve as discouragement therapy.

I have a wierless network which I use constantly. I can tell when the network isn't running at its full speed and it's an inconvenience. Granted, when this happens it's always myself but if I noticed slowdown and noticed a freaking leech on my driveway, you bet I would prosecute (under the assumption that my network is secured with the highest level of encryption possible).

jean-christophe said...

It's how the technology is designed. If this is a crime, then someone needs to haul my Mini off to jail.

Well.. this could go the other way around.

If you can't make a good use of your technology you shouldn't be allowed to use it. If you can't setup your wifi equipment to pick-up only YOUR network then you shouldn't be allowed to operate any wifi equipment (even if wifi is a wild dog by nature.. hey.. the owner is still responsible when the dog goes randomly biting someone on the street).

Josh said...

I found one blog yesterday which said the guy had left his network open "because his neighbors were old", but I can't find corroborating links now.

Josh said...

And in response to jean: it's not a matter of how I use it. This is just how wifi works, always trying to maintain a decent signal. The fact that it's a network it has access to, the mini is assuming it's a legit network. Why shouldn't it? There's nothing to distinguish this as "home" or otherwise.

My XP laptop seems to be able to determine preferred networks, but OSX appears indiscriminate. So, what, I'm irresponsible for using a Mac? No, they're irresponsible for not making their network distinct. An insecure wifi network is no different than a public wifi network. If you don't want to share the network, you don't have to.