wi-fi piracy

Even though the United States is woefully behind other nations when it comes to residential broadband connections, the number of homes with high-speed connections has been growing at an impressive rate.

In 2003, broadband usage grew by over 25% in just six months. That trend has continued as the cable and phone companies have expanded their infrastructure. Faster access to the Internet has meant an increase in the number of applications. Instead of existing only at the home office desk, the Internet provides information for the kitchen (recipes, shopping, organization), the living room (media centers, gaming consoles), and the bedroom for those workaholics. Because not everyone can afford to have a computer in every room, or network cable run throughout the house, wireless network devices have become a popular solution. Computer manufacturers have made wireless adapters standard in laptop computers. Phone and cable companies have worked hard to increase their customer base, making the setup of wireless, high-speed Internet connections incredibly simple. Even for the most beginner of home users.

With wired networks, you must have a physical connection in order to use the network. The security is through physical access. Wireless networks have no such security. You must configure your wireless device for this security. This is fine for techies, but non-techie home users rarely have the savvy to secure their wireless networks. It’s not surprising that pirating or piggybacking of these open wireless networks —using someone else’s Internet connection without their knowledge or approval—is extremely commonplace. Is wireless piracy stealing? Or is it a victimless crime?

In 2005, Benjamin Smith, III, was arrested and charged in Florida with unauthorized access to a computer network. In 2006, David Kauchak pleaded guilty in Illinois to “remotely accessing another computer system without the owner’s approval”. In 2007, Michigan resident Sam Peterson was charged under the state’s “Fraudulent access to computers, computer systems, and computer networks” law. Each time, the “criminal” was observed using a laptop computer from their vehicles outside of a business or home. They were taking advantage of unsecured wireless networks to gain access to the Internet.

There are three ethical issues here. First, a network’s owner purchases Internet access from an ISP. The Internet connection is basically licensed to the customer for their use. When other people pirate an Internet connection, the ISP is missing the opportunity for additional revenue. Second, the fact that the networks are unsecured is important. If I were to place a bag of money on the street in front of my house, is it a crime for someone to come by and take it? I know people who leave their wireless networks open on purpose, as a sort of public service for their neighborhoods. How can a laptop user determine which networks are open on purpose, and which are not? Finally, a major problem with unauthorized access to a network is that the network owner doesn’t know what the pirate is doing on their network. If it is something illegal, the network owner is unwittingly an accomplice to a crime, at least in the eyes of the ISP. When an open wireless network in a coffee shop was being used to generate spam, the ISP shut down the coffee shop’s connection.

ISPs need revenue to build up their infrastructure. We need a bigger infrastructure in order to offer Internet speeds equal to those found in Japan and other countries. If someone is able to piggyback on their neighbor’s connection, they’re shooting themselves in the foot. This would mean wireless pirates are slowing down the growth of Internet infrastructure by not purchasing high-speed Internet themselves. But you could also hold network owners who are leaving their wireless networks unsecured (including public libraries and small businesses) just as liable for the loss in revenue. Eric Bangeman of ars technica thinks this is too much of a stretch:

Take the case of public WiFi hotspots: official hotspots aren’t that difficult to find in major cities—every public library in Chicago has open WiFi, for instance. Are the public libraries and the countless other free hotspot providers helping defraud ISPs? No, they’re not. There’s no law that using the Internet requires payment of a fee to an ISP, and the myriad public hotspots prove this.

If there is not a crime against ISPs, then the crime must be against the network owner who left their network unsecured. A wireless pirate is portrayed as a burglar, breaking and entering a property without permission. I find this to be too much of a stretch as well, because the radio signals are entering my house where my device can pick them up. If I had snaked a network cable into someone’s house, or perhaps hooked into their cable box and ran it back over to my house, I could see where I had broken the law. But technically, a wireless network owner is sending their wireless signal into my location (be it out to a public street or into my apartment). Bangeman correlates it to owing a neighbor money because some of the neighbor’s water from their water sprinkler got on my lawn.

If there is no crime against the network owner, then the only time that unauthorized use of an unsecured wireless network should be related to a crime is when that use results in another crime. Pirates should be prosecuted for spamming, downloading child pornography, or any of the other countless things we already have federal laws for, no matter where they gain access to the Internet. And network owners cannot be held responsible for these crimes, just like I cannot be held responsible if someone takes my car and commits a crime with it.

I think state legislatures have been too broad with statutes and laws related to accessing unsecured wireless networks. Until a real crime is committed, accessing something publicly available without “hacking” or compromising information hardly deserves the label “crime”. At most, it could be considered impolite, especially if a pirate uses up all the bandwidth.