Alex Leary of the St. Petersburg times is on the story of an “intruder” who “hacked” into a wide-open WiFi and “stole” Internet service. Fortunately, the good guys caught him in the act, and now he’s facing hard time.
Mr. Leary, needs to take a deep breath and calm down.
Here’s something he might ponder once he’s got his blood pressure under control: on a recent trip to the Midwest, I probably “stole” Internet access from a dozen open access points around town. When I needed to check my email or look up an address, I’d drive down the street until I found myself within range of an unsecured wireless network. Then I logged in, checked my email, and logged off.
It’s almost certain that the owner didn’t even know I was there. The amount of bandwidth I “stole” was trivial, probably worth a fraction of a penny. I didn’t try to hack into anyone’s computer or snoop their private data. So am I a criminal?
ISPs will point out that such access technically violates their Terms of Service. Which is true. Comcast, for example, prohibits its broadband users from “making available to anyone outside the Premises the ability to use the Service (i.e. wi-fi, or other methods of networking).” But the TOS is an agreement with the guy who owns the access point, not with the guy who’s barrowing it. If Comcast has a beef with how its customers are using their service, they should take that up with the customer, not the guy driving by on the street. More to the point, this is the sort of thing that’s best dealt with with benign neglect. That provision in the TOS is to prevent a whole apartment building from sharing one broadband connection, depriving the ISP of revenue. But allowing me to use a WiFi network for 30 seconds isn’t going to make me any less likely to sign up for home broadband.
But I guess people have a tendency to get freaked out about things they don’t understand. When everything about a computer network is a mystery to you, I imagine it’s frightening to think that random strangers might have access. But whether or not you think it’s ethical to log into an unsecured wireless network, it’s certainly not a huge deal. Trading kiddie porn and stealing credit card numbers are a big deal, but one can do that with any Internet connection. There’s nothing special about WiFi in that respect.
Moreover, it takes all of 2 minutes, and virtually no technical savvy, to set a password for your access point. The procedure depends on which one you’ve got, so consult your manual, but most likely it involves opening your browser, typing in a number like “10.0.0.1” for the address, and clicking a “change password” button. If you don’t want people sharing your network–and more power to you if you don’t–that will deter 99.9% of the people who might try to log in. And I’d certainly be open to the idea that the remaining .1% should be liable for criminal sanctions.
A more tech-savvy reporter likely would have made fun of the bumbling flatfoots who think checking your email on a wide-open computer network is a felony. Of course, a more tech-savvy policeman wouldn’t have made an arrest in the first place.