Wireless, Security, and Liability

by on March 20, 2006

The Houston Chronicle’s TechBlog has a post this morning accusing me of taking security issues to lightly in my wireless piggybacking op-ed:

Reading Lee’s bio at the Technology Liberation Front, where he is a contributor, you can tell that he knows better. He’s a former systems administrator and savvy in the ways of Mac, Unix and Perl. I think his skimming over the security issue is disingenuous.

If he’s been paying attention, he knows that illegal music and movie sharing is rampant, and that the recording and film industries are coming after those who do it frequently. He also knows that these trade associations’ lawyers hunt down their prey via IP address, and that a “friendly neighbor” with a thirst for illegal music and movies can bring unwanted legal attention to the owner of an open WiFi network.

And that’s just the most minor of crimes that can be committed over a WiFi network. Granted, the chance that a kiddie porn addict or someone trying to hack the Pentagon will use your open bandwidth is slim–but do you even want to take that chance?

This is an interesting point, and is actually a different security issue than the one I had in mind when I pooh-poohed the security risks of open WiFi. I had in mind the worry that someone would log into your wireless network and hack into your computer or eavesdrop on your network traffic.

But what he’s talking about isn’t really a security issue at all, it’s a liability issue. And it is a real risk. If somebody does something bad with your Internet connection–shares copyrighted songs, trades child pornography, or sends a death threat to the president–there’s a chance you could get sued, or even arrested.

However, the odds of that happening is pretty small. And if it does happen, you’re not likely to be convicted. It is, after all, a case of mistaken identity–it’s not a crime to have someone use your network for lawbreaking without your consent. It’s likely that if you get a call from the RIAA or the FBI about illegal activity on your network, they’ll be willing to let you off the hook if you help them catch the culprit.

The other possible argument is that by leaving your network open, you’re making it easier for people to get away with doing illegal things. But there are millions of networks connected to the Internet. You’re never going to close all of them. So closing your network will simply caues criminals to move on to the next one.

Update: Mike at TechDirt chimes in to say that opening up your WiFi network qualifies you as an ISP under the Communications Decency Act, under which you’re not liable if someone does something illegal via your network.

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