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News & Features | Jan 28th, 2011

Wifi and the Law: Whose Wifi Is It Anyway?

Jan Legnitto

Do you think leaving your home wifi network wide open for others to enjoy is being a good neighbor? Or maybe you think it’s fine to piggyback on someone’s open wifi connection? Do you even know if wifi piggybacking is legal in your state? Before you make up your mind about whether hopping on somebody else’s wifi is good or bad or safe or unsafe, there are a few things to consider.

In 2005, a Florida man was charged with a felony for piggybacking – unlawful access to someone’s home wifi connection from his van parked on the street. A year later, an Illinois man was fined for unauthorized use of a local agency’s wireless network. In 2007, a Michigan man was also fined for connecting to the wifi hotspot of a local café from his car.

The federal government and all 50 states have laws about “unauthorized access to a computer network.” But there’s not any agreement about whether access to an open wifi network with no harmful intent is addressed by most of those laws. There could be another reason that most states aren’t going after wifi thieves. It’s hard to catch someone in the act of piggybacking.

Some Countries Outlaw Piggybacking

In the UK, it’s illegal to access an open wifi network without permission from the owner. In 2005, a teenager was fined and his computer was confiscated for using someone else’s open wifi connection to chat online.

A year later, another teenager in Singapore was sentenced to probation for accessing a neighbor’s unsecured wireless connection without permission.

If you think these cases amount to piggybacker harassment, think about this: if your wifi connection is unprotected, most of the time you won’t be able to tell who else is using it and for what purpose. It could be an innocent piggybacker looking to check his email. Or it could be a hacker, a spammer, a child pornographer, a music pirate or even a terrorist. Internet providers log activities originating from your home Internet connection. That means everything that your wireless network is used for – for legal or illegal purposes – can be traced back to you.

Case in point: in 2007, The Washington Post reported that when detectives raided an Arlington, Virginia apartment looking for a pedophile peddling pornography online, they found an elderly woman who had nothing to do with the crime. Her wireless router was unsecured – wide open for someone else to use. Since then, there have been many U.S. cases of child pornographers hijacking open wifi connections to download kiddie porn.

Last year, Germany’s top court decided to make people with unsecured wireless connections partly responsible for the crimes of others who use them. The court ruled that Internet users must password protect their wifi or face a fine if a third party uses it to illegally download music, movies or other copyrighted media.

Wifi hacking isn’t just being used to commit white collar crimes. In 2008, terrorists affiliated with the Indian Mujahideen group hacked into a home wireless connection of a U.S. citizen living in Mumbai. They used it to send out an email warning of their attacks in several cities which killed 46 people and wounded 200.

Last year, the same group used another unsecured wifi connection belonging to an Indian disc jockey in Mumbai to send terror emails claiming responsibility for a blast in the city of Varanasi.

A 2009 survey of 12 cities and 40,000 wireless networks by Deloite and Data Security Council of India found that 86% of those networks were vulnerable to hackers. As a result, Indian police have begun a crackdown against those who use unsecured wifi. In some cities, violators will be fined and even face prison time for failing to secure their wireless networks.

The cyber terrorist attacks in India are a grim reminder that we can’t control what happens on unsecured wifi networks anywhere in the world.

What You Can Do to Protect Yourself

  • Secure your home wireless network. Use strong wifi encryption. That means using WPA or WPA2 instead of WEP, which is an easy target for hackers.
  • Change the default password on your wireless router. Don’t use a password that anyone can guess.
  • Keep your firewall turned on and your security software up to date.
  • Check the law in your state to find out if piggybacking on open wireless connections is illegal.
  • If you see evidence that someone else has gained unauthorized access to your wireless network, contact your wireless service provider.
  • Use a VPN (virtual private network) like PRIVATE WiFi™ to insure that all your information online goes through a secure tunnel that’s invisible to hackers.

Have you borrowed someone else’s wifi connection or been a victim of someone who borrowed yours? If you do, we’d like to hear your story.

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  • Pingback: Are you a WiFi Moocher?

  • Susan

    I've been hit by radio waves and microwaves for years, since they put a satellite dish up next door. They turn it up whenever they feel like it and it makes living conditions in my home a living hell. Is there any law against this? If so I'd like to know because it's done a lot of damage to me personally.

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