Networking

Peter Cochrane's Blog: Borrowing Wi-Fi is not a crime

If it is, I may be off to jail someday soon

Written over the mid-Atlantic, and despatched later via free terrestrial Wi-Fi from a place in the UK I had better not disclose

A few days ago I walked into a public rest room and found 25c on the floor. I picked it up without a thought and deposited it in the tips jar of the restaurant as I exited. Later that day it started to rain and I took refuge under the awning of a shop until the shower subsided. That evening I wanted to read a map more clearly so I made use of the light from a shop window. The next day my travels took me to a gas station without any restrooms, so I just popped into a nearby fast food place and used theirs.

A few other incidents saw me using someone's private drive as part of a three-point turn. I also wrote some notes using a hotel pen, and pocketed a few leaves of note paper from the same source. Would you call any one of these acts a crime?

I have also, of course, been using free Wi-Fi internet access whenever it has been available. And available to me means the WEP isn't on and a DHCP setting results in an address allocation and access to the internet. I never ask or look to ask anyone's permission, I just connect!

In some countries this now seems to have become classified as a crime. Recent court cases in the UK, Canada and the US have garnered significant publicity. The ones I can go along with are those involving real security issues and/or use of the internet connection for child porn trading. But not the rest! If I am to go to court for using freely available and unprotected Wi-Fi, then my use of shop lights, toilets, shop awnings and someone's drive should qualify me as a criminal too. Why? Because they cost more than Wi-Fi access!

Surprisingly the law in Germany does not qualify the hijacking of Wi-Fi internet access, with or without WEP protection, as a crime. Interesting stuff for sure. I can remember when a UK citizen listening to anything other than the BBC was committing a crime. Indeed, CB radio was also banned, as were car radios without an individual licence, not to mention any form of off-air recording.

Did anyone take any notice? No! So will this growing silliness over Wi-Fi access prevail? I think not! It seems to me the law is being a bit of an ass (again) and wasting an awful lot of time, money and effort on a trivial issue - just like the 25c in the washroom.

If anyone is criminally charged for using my various home and office Wi-Fi systems to access the internet for free, I will defend them myself. I leave my systems open specifically for casual users. And so do many of my friends and colleagues worldwide.

If WEP is turned off on a network, it is a clear invitation to take advantage of the freedom afforded - just like a drive without a gate, or a rest room without a lock. If WEP is turned on, it clearly says 'For Private Use Only'. If someone purposely cracks a Wi-Fi WEP network, they are clearly a bit-burglar. And should they commit some illegal act using any form of Wi-Fi network - open, closed, home, office or hotspot - then they should be subject to the due process of law.

As for the rest... we may need a little uncommon sense!

About

Peter Cochrane is an engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, futurist and consultant. He is the former CTO and head of research at BT, with a career in telecoms and IT spanning more than 40 years.

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