Now this is a first: Down in Florida a man has been arrested and charged with a felony for accessing an unsecured wireless network in someone’s home.
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.
Innocuous use of other people’s unsecured Wi-Fi networks is common. But experts say that illegal use often goes undetected, such as people sneaking on others’ networks to traffic in child pornography, steal credit card information and send death threats.
Security experts say people can prevent such access by turning on encryption or requiring passwords, but few bother or even know how to do so.
I’d be willing to bet that the majority of wireless networks in most homes and small businesses are unsecured just based on my personal experience. Since I started freelancing I’ve been in a number of small businesses and personal residences and I’d say that 9 out of 10 of them were wide open to anyone with a wireless network card. In fact, I’ve made use of those connections myself to check my email and even post a blog entry or two. I think in most places this issue is still a bit of a gray area as far as the law is concerned, but in my opinion I think it’s ridiculous to charge someone with a crime for making use of an unsecured wireless network. If you’re broadcasting your connection without properly securing it then you should expect that someone out there will likely take advantage of it. Right here in my own apartment complex there are at least four wireless networks in close enough proximity to me that my laptop could make use of them and three of them are unsecured. At my brother’s house we can see three other unsecured networks within range of his home. Plus, with the way Windows XP is setup, it’s quite possible to access a network other than the one you intended to without realizing it.
Now if the person in question was doing something illegal, such as the aforementioned child pornography, then I could see charging them with whatever crime they were engaged in, but if they’re not breaking into any of the computers on the network and their activity is otherwise legal then there shouldn’t be a problem. There is no way to tell if an unsecured network is that way because the person that owns it wishes to share it or not, but if you enable WEP encryption then that’s a pretty clear signal that you don’t want others making use of it. If they break the encryption (which, for WEP at least, is relatively trivial to do) then they should be charged with a crime. There are plenty of people out there, though, who leave their networks unencrypted specifically so others can make use of it.