Man charged with felony for using home owner’s unsecured Wi-Fi network.

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.

18 thoughts on “Man charged with felony for using home owner’s unsecured Wi-Fi network.

  1. I agree with you that it is irresponsible to not secure one’s wireless network – and I can see why one might think that people who do not secure their wireless network should not be allowed to complain about unauthorized use for legal purposes of their unsecured wireless network.

    On the other hand, I don’t believe that it is entirely okay to use someone else’s wireless network simply because one doesn’t have to break into the network in order to use it. That’s like saying, for example, that your neighbors should be allowed to use the water from the faucet in your garden, if that water faucet is not secured? (I know, that’s not a perfect analogy, because with the garden faucet issue you probably have the additional element of people physically trespassing on your property, but you get my point, right?)

  2. Here’s a better analogy: Say you’ve set up a water sprinkler on your lawn in such a way that part of its spray is crossing the boundaries of your lawn and landing on mine. It being very hot out and me being without AC I decide to set up a lawn chair in a spot on my lawn where your water spay lands on me.

    Now, you never intended for the spray from your sprinkler to land on my lawn or for me to make use of it if it did, but there I am basking in the water that you paid for and allowing my lawn to soak it up. Should you be able to have me arrested for “stealing” your water simply because I took advantage of your carelessness?

    This analogy is a bit more appropriate because it’s much more similar. I’m not trespassing on your property nor am I controlling the resource in question. I’m just taking advantage of the fact that you’ve been careless. You could have ensured I wasn’t able to take such advantage if you placed your sprinkler properly/secured your wireless network. You could also stop me from taking advantage of your resource by turning off the resource in question or repositioning the sprinkler/securing the wireless network at any point in time. If it’s not theft of your water then why should it be considered theft of your broadband?

  3. Mike, I’d think it’d be similar to pulling into the driveway, or standing on their front walkway using the Wi-Fi access – physically trespassing to get within reach of the Wi-Fi signal.

    If your tree overhangs the neighbor’s property, the neighbor can cut off the overhang and keep any fruit that falls on their property.  Unless those laws have changed…

    mmmm… how about this for an analogy:  Your neighbor has a big ass shade tree, you mention that since it also gives you great shade in the hot afternoon, your electric bill has dropped by $40 a month.  Your neighbor then demands you split the savings with him b/c he has to pay for the water and fertilizer for the tree.

    I think it’s a messed up situation.  Personally, I don’t think there should be grounds for the charges b/c the network owner didn’t secure his network and broadcast it into a public area.  There was no theft.  At most, trespassing, like cutting through someone’s yard as a shortcut.

    It reminds me of someone who’ll put something out for trash, then get pissed b/c you pick it up for yourself.

  4. No analogies here, but I have been using a neighbors WiFi signal for about 6 months now to acces the internet. In that time I have set his local time to our region, updated his routers firmware, and turned off his broadcasting so OTHER (perhaps more nefarious) characters could not use his signal. I have not done anything illegal such as traffic in kiddie porn or send threatening letters to the president. I do not feel bad in the least that I am using his signal because 1) I did not seek it out and 2) He left the door wide open!

    The FIRST thing I did when I set up my wireless router was change the default password then turn off broadcasting. How can you NOT read the first paragraph of the instructions?

  5. I can usually pick up about 3 strong signals and 1 or 2 weak ones from home.. all unprotected.

    @ work I pick up 3 from our building.. and many more
    from the motel next door. I think I’m the only one not broadcasting unkeyed; all others are wide open.

    Transients surf through and hit em all of the time b/c they dont want to pay the 16$ a day for a network key on resold dsl access.

    I would be willing to bet the guy that allowed wireless unsecured access to his network is in breach of contract with his ISP.

    Typical bullshit.

    If I walk down the street throwing 100$ bills around and can I have people charged for felony theft when they pick them up? Hell I bet we could even get em charged as one count per bill even?

    this sounds about par for government work.

  6. I’ll leave it to Consi to comment on the legal ramifications of accessing somebody else’s computing resources, but I’d be surprised if it weren’t in violation of some law or other.

    As somebody else mentioned, running an unsecured wireless access point is quite likely in violation of the ISPs terms of service.

    Finally, my own wireless access point is behind a firewall/VPN gateway. If a neighbor cares to, they can break my WEP key with a bit of effort, but that won’t immediately gain them access to my internal network or the Internet.

  7. I have no idea how this case will turn out.  What I do know is that the question will turn on how wireless works.  I lack that knowledge as well.  If someone can provide a quick primer on then intracacies of the technology it might be helpful.  Not all here are techies.

    My gut says that you can’t be charged for listening to somebody’s short-wave radio transmissions or for breathing air.  However, homeowner’s do have certain mineral rights, and airspace rights (an area I’m not versed in) and to what extent tapping a wireless connection infringes upon these, I think would again be dependent upon how the technology works and how it is tapped.

    This of course assumes that the ISPs have not already gone to the legislature and received a state or federal statute that specifically prohibits this.

    One way to avoid all of this would be for cities or states to tax the citizenry on the sales of all computers and use the tax to contract with the ISPs to provide wireless access city or state wide.  This might prove to be unfeasible if the state is a large rural one, but again I don’t know enough about the technology.

  8. A quick comparison would be using a wireless handset to use a neighbor’s wireless basestation to place outgoing calls.

    As a legal layperson, I’d call both theft of service and it is my recollection that some pertinent laws went into effect in the few years.

  9. Consi: and airspace rights (an area I’m not versed in) and to what extent tapping a wireless connection infringes upon these, I think would again be dependent upon how the technology works and how it is tapped.

    I’m no expert either, but in this case the signal was being broadcast into a public area.  I could see electronic trespassing, since it is akin to walking through someone’s yard to get somewhere. 

    Personally, I believe the laws should mirror as closely as possible laws dealing with the physical world.  Somebody trashing your network is similar to your house being vandalized, data theft = robbery, etc.  Now, I KNOW it’s not an exact one to one comparison, but I think it’s what we should use as a goal, or at least a reference.  Definately a lot better than locking up somebody checking email or movie times from some random hotspot b/c they “might” have done worse.  Like saying someone cutting across your yard could have robbed you, so charge them with a felony. 

    Theft of service is a little trickier to me.  My analogy to it is this (man, I am so full of analogy on this thread): We moved in here while houses were still being built.  The workers across the street would use our spigot to wash their hands and faces, and get a drink.  They also would sit on the shaded side of our house on their break when they were working next door.  They did NOT: leave trash in the yard, leave water running, or run a hose to use for construction.  Technically, trespassing and stealing water.  In reality, it was June in north Texas.  Now, if my neighbor pulled my hose, on my spigot, to water HIS yard, we’d have a problem.  My view: workers drinking – unnoticeable usage, few gallons; neighbor watering yard(or workers using it for building/landscaping) – hundreds of gallons – shows up on water bill. 

    The wireless handset – cordless phone, correct? – is noticeable, and can interfere with getting and making calls.  Small net traffic – if it’s not eating up bandwith, have to use monitoring software to notice it, then I see that differently than moving a gig of data across someone else’s hotspot. 

    Theft of service and electronic trespassing, I’d have to agree technically and say yes.  Of course, some kid cutting through your yard coming home from school could be a criminal for trespassing.  I’m worried about the degree of reaction to the incident.

    Just like you’d get shit for leaving your house unlocked and getting robbed, I think the network owner should get some crap for not securing his network.  Don’t want people in your yard, build a fence.  Don’t want them on your Wi-Fi, enable WEP.

    elwed: Finally, my own wireless access point is behind a firewall/VPN gateway. If a neighbor cares to, they can break my WEP key with a bit of effort, but that won’t immediately gain them access to my internal network or the Internet.

      I think I may be nitpicking your wording, but putting a wap BEHIND the firewall is putting it INSIDE your protected area, unless there’s another firewall on a computer behind it.  That’s the prob some companies have with employees putting up their own wireless gear – it’s behind all the protection. 

    Yeah, breaking the WEP is possible, but very much an intentional, targeted process, from what I’ve read about it.

    I’m sure I could have gotten to my point in less words, but I’m actually feeling a little wordy today.  I’m really much more introverted than this.

  10. Walk into a business, find a flylead slot on the skirting and ur online. That’s what ur basically doing when ur using someone else’s wifi. Crap example with the sprinklers. Just because someone hasnt locked their door, doest mean that you can enter.

  11. Just because someone hasnt locked their door, doest mean that you can enter.

    No, but don’t expect sympathy or possibly even insurance covering your loss if you do.

    An unlocked door is not a good example.  That would be similar to accessing the homeowner’s computer.  Jumping on the network to get to the internet is similar to trespassing, not breaking and entering.

    Who’s to blame if your default laptop setup automatically connects to an available wifi and starts an auto-update?  Is it still trespassing on your part?  Or do you blame M$, HP, and Linksys for making it the default settings?

    People who don’t like ANYONE in their yard for ANY reason will build a fence.  Don’t want someone using your wifi?  Encrypt and disable SSID broadcast.

  12. Thank God for these posts!  I had no idea that using open wifi signals where illegal!  I barely knew how to setup the wifi on my handheld! 

    In hindsight, hopefully the law will take a closer look at that guys intentions, and consider the huge move to wifi, bluetooth, and the increasing number of hotspots (many of which are not free)that are popping up all over the place.

  13. That’s just it, it’s hard to say for certain that using open WiFi signals is illegal. The law doesn’t actually address the issue and the law used in this case is questionable in how it was applied.

    Consider that here in Michigan the Powers That Be in Oakland County are wiring the entire area to provide free WiFi access to everyone in the county. The free access will be better than dialup and not the speeds most folks expect from broadband, but you’ll be able to subscribe to get faster speeds. Still, if it’s illegal to access open WiFi networks then a lot of people in Oakland County could be in for a rude surprise.

  14. I just did a piece about this for CBC Radio. Not sure about the laws in the US – but up in Canada it is most certainly a criminal offence to log onto an unsecured (or secured) WiFi connection that is not your own. It contravenes numerous federal laws originally designed to protect telephone co’s from people stealing their long distance service (among other things).

    Only a couple of people have been charged up here – and that was in conjunction with more serious charges … like using other people’s WiFi to download kiddie pron. Definitely illegal though. I interviewed Norm Wong (lawyer with the feds) and he was unequivocal about it. Also, you are technically open to heavy fines (up to $75k I think) from Industry Canada if you modify the device you are using to extend your connection range, etc. Though no one has ever been hit with that to my knowledge.

    IMO it’s basically unenforcable because the “offenders” are mobile and usually connecting only temporarily. Good luck catching them. Probably explains why so few have been caught. It’s not like it’s hard to put a friggin password on your wireless router anyway.

    Though, I did a “survey” in my neighbourhood for the story where I drove around slowly in my car with a laptop in the passenger seat and found that 5/8 WiFi spots within a four block radius were unsecured. I connected to them, then knocked on my neighbours’ doors to get an interview about their WiFi opinions. Fun story.

  15. Also, you are technically open to heavy fines (up to $75k I think) from Industry Canada if you modify the device you are using to extend your connection range, etc.

      What?  It’s illegal to build your own antenna?  That’s fucked up.

  16. Totally. But again, the guy I interviewed at Industry Canada (George Hastings) didn’t have any examples of anyone being charged under that section of the law (in a WiFi context). I think for IC’s purposes, you would need to be running a business of some kind where you modify these devices in an operation of some scale. They are all bugged out because they don’t want people’s WiFi interfering with other devices transmitting on the scientific/medical/industrial spectrum. Incidentally, that’s a maximum $75k fine and/or 5 years in jail. Also, I pulled a quote from the story from Norm Wong at the Dept of Justice re: wardriving:

    “Just because you found a new way to kill someone doesn’t mean it’s not murder,

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