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Can Accessing an Open Wi-Fi Network Land You in Jail? Print
Wednesday, 25 July 2007 16:33

WiFi Can Land You in Jail“Man arrested for accessing wireless network”, or something to that tune had been in the headlines a few times recently. Each time I read it, I question the validity of the laws used in these cases. I personally think the legal ignorance of technology is the problem. Around 6th grade (stick with me here), I submitted a paper I had typed in Paperclip, my first word processor. I was stunned when my teacher wouldn’t accept it. I had printed it with a dot-matrix printer. Of course the paper’s computer generation was obvious and my teacher immediately conjured up the notion that my computer had clearly written my paper for me. My teacher’s position was that I need to do the paper myself, and consequently, she wouldn’t accept anything done by a computer. I reasoned that I had actually composed the paper, and the computer had not created the paper for me as she was implying. In the end I lost that battle but learned from the experience. She made a rule based in ignorance that was going to cost me – the price of a daisy wheel printer.

This brings me to Sam Peterson II. Each day during his lunch break, Mr. Peterson would drive to the Union Street Cafe, park his car, check his email, and surf the net without ever entering the cafe. A police officer grew suspicious of Peterson and eventually questioned him as to what he was doing. Peterson, not realizing he was breaking any laws, told the officer he checked his email from this spot during his lunch. “I had a feeling a law was being broken, but I didn’t know exactly what,” Sparta police chief Andrew Milanowski told the local TV station. The cafe owner that Peterson was leeching WiFi off of didn’t realize that Peterson was committing a crime either. No one was aware that Peterson had committed any crime including Peterson, the cafe owner, and the officer. Peterson wasn’t charge that day, but a few days later a warrant was sworn for his arrest. He was charged was a 1979 law dealing with hacking that was later updated to include protection of Wi-Fi systems. Under Michigan law, access a computer system without authorization and you’re committing a crime. Peterson faced a five-year felony and a $10,000 fine. The Kent County prosecutor’s office decided not to charge Peterson with the felony, as it was his first offense. Instead, he was sentenced to enroll in the county’s diversion program, pay a $400 fine and complete 40 hours of community service. Does any of this sound maddening to you? I hope so. According to a very nice lady in the Sparta Police Department, the owner had apparently decided to press charges.

Most people are technologically astute enough in this day and age to realize that word processors do not write your term papers. I remind you here of my childhood experience because the case of the Wi-Fi theft is a blatant misunderstanding of Wi-Fi technology. The cafe owner could have easily secured access to her wireless system numerous ways. I would also like to point out that in some places such as New York’s Westchester County, the Union Street Cafe could be fined for not securing their wireless network.

In Jail for WiFi PiggybackingMr. Peterson is not the only victim of the justice system’s warped perspective either. Benjamin Smith III in a St. Petersburg, FL was arrested on April 21, 2005 and charged with a felony for accessing a home Wi-Fi network in his parked car. David Kauchak was sentenced to one year of court supervision and a $250 fine for accessing a business wireless network from his vehicle.

I tried to determine my state's (South Carolina) position on accessing open wireless networks. I first called  US Senator Lindsey Graham’s office and was directed to Governor Mark Sanford’s office. Four phone transfers later, I was basically told to contact a lawyer, by a not so nice lady. So, I need to spend a few hundred bucks with a lawyer for him to tell me his “opinion” of whether or not it’s legal to check my email from an open Wi-Fi spot? Nice.

It is the trade of lawyers to question everything, yield nothing, and to talk by the hour. – Thomas Jefferson

After some digging around on the South Carolina Legislature Online site, I did find Section 16-16-20 which appears to be the South Carolina law in regard to network access. It reads very similar to the Michigan legislation used to prosecute Sam Peterson.

The Wi-Fi industry has had explosive growth in recent years; 64% in 2005 and 34% on top of that in 2006. Wi-Fi in not specific to laptops either. This technology is now utilized in cellular phones, voice over IP technology, game systems such as the PS3, portable gaming devices such as PSP and Nintendo DS, digital cameras, printers, LCD picture frames, and a broad spectrum of other electronic devices.

The majority of wireless devices today are designed to be user friendly. This user friendliness usually involves a transparent connection process to connect to the strongest signal available. This process enables you to move around with your wireless device while it silently switches off to the strongest node to ensure you stay connected.

Say you’re playing Xbox live and your neighbor’s access point was stronger than yours. 5 years in lockup? Say your walking down the street and your Skype Wi-Fi phone rings. If you answer is it 5 years in the joint? Or perhaps because it rang you’re already on your way to the hoosegow.

Open Wi-Fi networks are just that, open. I think most business offering free Wi-Fi would assume they’re going to have some moochers. I imagine they hope if someone can find their way to their parking lot, that they will eventually find their way to through their doors. If they wished to put up with the hassles of a more secure wireless network, it can easily be enabled a variety of ways. In Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP), Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA), or Media Access Control (MAC) address filtering could be used to protect a wireless network. Perhaps the best and lowest tech solution for Union Street Cafe would have been to have simply gone to the parking lot and ask Mr. Sam Peterson II to stop or buy a cup of their delicious coffee.  But that would have been too simple and required no governmental intervention at all.

Things usually work through themselves in their own time.  Movie theaters don’t make a standard practice of arresting people when their cell phones ring. Some theaters address the problem by installing cellular blocking devices.  Others simply ask the offenders to leave. I don’t see the need for the government to play a role in cases like Sam Peterson II either. If Peterson had worked for a competing cafe and had been hacking Union Street Cafe’s level 3 secure network to obtain their customer base and secret recipes, I could perhaps see a case for recourse and judicial involvement. As for Sam though, he was just checking his email.

-Grant Brown


2007-08-22 Update — Man arrested over wi-fi broadband theft

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Comments (5)

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Seriously!? How hard is it to simply "password protect" your own wireless network?? If you're too stupid to do this, then you don't deserve to press charges against someone who happens upon it!! >:-| Grrr!

Great article!
Tonz , June 28, 2008
The way I see it, and the way I wish it were argued is:

If my neighbor has a apple, peach, pear trees along our shared fence that overlaps into my yard, I get free apples, peaches and pears. I don't need to ask either, its implied because it is in my yard.

If his wireless signal penetrates my walls and enters into my home, I don't get free internet access? He has the ability, nay, the responsibility to lock it down with a password, but if he chooses not to, isn't he, in reality, sharing his internet access with his neighbors?

"Ignorance is no excuse" works both ways, and as an acting network access provider, he is legally responsible for what happens on his wire, not me.
Dorkilicous , April 23, 2010
Not only is it ridiculous to charge someone for using an open wifi network, it is just as ridiculous to make it illegal to leave one open.

esookeca , August 20, 2010
amazing work so nice
APK Speeds , January 23, 2017 | url

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