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connecting to unsecured wireless: is it hijacking?

By Ned Rhinelander (CNET) ·
I came in today to my job at CNet Network's Cambridge office, and had to wait in the lobby for a fire alarm to clear.

I pulled out my laptop and decided to see if there were any available networks...turns out there were 10, 3 or 4 of which were not secured. So, I proceded to IM with my colleage Steven upstairs. Before long Steven asked me "so you don't have any qualms about hijacking a wireless connection?"

When I setup a wireless access point, I consciously assume that if I set it to broadcast the SSID and disable security it's tantamount to offering a public service.

However, Steven's question threw me for a loop, because I think he has a point as well...no one gave me permission to connect to the access point. Just because my computer connects automatically doesn't necessarily make it right.

Any thoughts out there on the legalities or general ettiquitte of this?

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Getting closer to mutual understanding.

by mgordon In reply to OK then

What if you have put the microphone to your equipment out where the public, enjoying their rights to "speak" (first amendment) in a place where such speech is permitted, "inadvertently" intrude upon your microphone (the input half of your WAP). Is that breaking the law? You have made it impossible or difficult not to intrude. People must have a SAFE HARBOR, some way of obeying the law.

Your desire not to be the common carrier for their speech is irrelevant IF you put your microphone in a public place. If KSL television sends out a reporter and he sets his microphone down, live on the street, do you think anyone can be prosecuted for speaking into it? They have stolen nothing; they are not even touching the microphone. They merely speak, and what they say is carried to a million homes (well that might be too many for KSL). Have they broken the law? No. Did they know they ought not to be doing so? Bet on it! The fault is one hundred percent on KSL to not let that happen, and they take precautions -- first they don't let the public very close to their input equipment. Second, they time-delay everything to bleep out any words spoken by passers-by that they don't want to publish.

I have both commercial and amateur radio licenses. That undoubtedly colors my opinions somewhat. But I have strict liability on what gets "published" by my radio equipment, I am responsible. If I let my kids talk on my radio, that is legal but I am responsible for the outcome -- *I* own the radio, therefore I am responsible for its operation.

WAP's are radios; the owners of WAPs are responsible for their operation. A WAP is a bridge between wireless radio communications, laws and theories, and wired communications, laws and theories. Which pertains? If I ever sit on a jury; only one thing pertains -- the WAP itself and the responsibility its owner has to use it correctly. The public cannot know what is on the other side of a WAP; it might not be the "public internet" at all (not that there is any such entity called "public internet" of course). The burden cannot be upon a person who has no way to find out. Even in Wisconsin, it is possible to find out whether land is private. But WAP's? HOW do you find out? You cannot.

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Getting closer to mutual understanding.

by mgordon In reply to OK then
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Doesn't apply

by Cactus Pete In reply to OK then

It is not a question of YOU broadcasting on my AP, arther YOu accessing a network to which you have no explicit authorization.

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Still theft no matter where you leave the chairs

by JeremyS In reply to Analogy needs refinement

It is still theft, no matter where you leave you chair(s). Just like your car, even when it is on the other side of the city, it is still your property.

I still think hijacking implies a malicious act. There is a difference between sitting in their lobby talking to a friend on MSN and parked in an alley behind the company downloading DVDs. Personally I think it has more to do with intent.

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Who decides intent?

by tradergeorge In reply to Still theft no matter whe ...

In general, I agree with your philosophy on theft. But who decides where to draw the line? You say it is okay to IM or email, but not okay to download DVDs. That is kind of like saying that it is okay to steal $100 but not $1 mil........The line will differ with different people.

I do not think you would appreciate 1000 people all instant messaging on your network when you are trying to download, but by your philosophy, none of them individually would be doing anything wrong.

The best way to test a theory is to carry it to its worst case scenario and see if the premise is still valid. Here you can see, it is not.

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Let us consider taxation as an analogy

by mgordon In reply to Who decides intent?

It is not always effective to use the approach you have used. You must be libertarian and academic, as am I, since it is a very good argument that tends to be useless in real life.

Here's the scenario: I cannot rightly take a dollar from you against your will and the greater the sum the greater the wrong. But, suppose I and my neighbor conspire to take your money. Is it right? No. How about the whole neighborhood. We decide to take your money; maybe even disguise the act by kicking in some of our own. Is it right? No; it will be some form of extortion or stealing. A thousand people? Million? At what point does it suddenly become RIGHT? The answer can only be that there is no point, no magical number; and yet, we pay taxes, unwillingly for most of us, since doing so is preferable to the sheriff coming and taking our property at gunpoint. That happens because of "eminent domain" a philosophy that itself suffers from the same flawed logic as taxation. But the government does it because it CAN, and it is necessary, and we have some theories about "social contract" that you subscribed to when you were born even though it was the ONLY contract you can subscribe to when you are born!

These theories that stand in conflict to simple logic pertain to a great many things and are what create oddities called "easements" that I have bene pushing tonight. Easements are neither right nor wrong; they are "expedient", they exist. The constitution of the US does speak to "promote the common welfare" which some people amazingly think means their welfare CHECK but that's a different story -- the Constitution does allow for subdivisions of government to take away some of your rights for the "common welfare" and one of those rights MAY turn out to be your right to publish an unsecured WAP frequency and have nobody permitted to use it but yourself. But as we have seen with the fellow whose SSID is "SALAD", how can you possibly know whether a WAP is intended to be publicly accessible? There is only one possible way -- the presence or absence of some sort of access control.

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Analogy flawed?

by tradergeorge In reply to Let us consider taxation ...

The problem with trying to make stealing access analogous to taxation is that the bandwidth theft does nothing to promote the "common good" you speak of. It does the opposite, by increasing costs for everyone else except the thief.

The theory of easements is a bit more intriguing, but still not applicable. An easement is, as you indicated, something that is created by law for expediency. But assuming an easement, as in the case of taking bandwidth where no law exists granting it, is still theft.

The concept of "access control" as establishing "intent", is analogous to assuming that if there is no lock on a door, it is okay to enter and take whatever is inside.

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COURTESY-SHMOURTESY

by dcperich In reply to Analogy needs refinement

I think its pointless to discuss what's the "nice" thing to do. What is LEGAL? How would it be enforced?

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Private vs. Public

by BHLang In reply to If I set some chairs out ...

Private connections are those that have their security set so only authorized users can get in. Public connections are those that anyone with the right equipment can get into.

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Private vs Public

by bmcombrw In reply to Private vs. Public

There was at least one case in the old days of the Internet where someone found a telnet service open, connected to the host, and actually did some kind of damage. The perpetrator got off scot free because the owner of the telnet site did not specify in their login banner that access to the site was limited to authorized users only.

If your car breaks down in the boonies and land owner boundaries are not clearly marked nor are there any No Trespassing signs about, I doubt you could be prosecuted for taking a shortcut to a service station across ground that could be, for all you know, public land. And, since my little walk will likely not affect the land I'm traveling through, I don't even think there is a moral obligation to track down the nearest land owner's house (assuming I can tell that the land I want to traverse relates to the house) to let someone know what I'm doing. (Might be smart, though - it might be illegal for the land owner to shoot me in these circumstances, but that doesn't help me if I'm dead.)

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