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Opinion: "Stealing" Wi-Fi Is No Crime

Authorities recently arrested a Florida man for "borrowing" his neighbor's Wi-Fi. But who was harmed?
Like most laws enacted by civil societies, there's a certain "smell" test that must be passed before you start locking people up. Laws that can't pass this test are routinely violated, and law enforcement officials are loath to get involved. In basketball games where contact inconsistent with the rules takes place on nearly every play, we sometimes call this no harm, no foul. So, what if I hop on my neighbor's RoadRunner connection by connecting to his wireless router? Are you supportive of the local constable hauling me off to jail?

The recent case of the St. Petersburg, Fla., Wi-Fi Bandit, arrested and charged with third-degree felony unauthorized access to a computer network, strikes us as interesting in large part because borrowing the neighbor's Wi-Fi seems about as serious an offense as driving 70 in a 65 MPH zone. As Wi-Fi continues its relentless march to ubiquity, the network of free hotspots grows ever larger. In my home, my son sometimes uses the neighbor's network, from which he gets a better signal because of the vagaries of RF.

Some assert that there is great danger with these open wireless networks. Not only are home computers more vulnerable to security attacks that come from an individual surreptitiously attached directly to your home wireless router, there is also the danger of anonymous and illegal cyber-activity, trading in child-porn being the most frequently cited possibility. But in truth, the danger is broadly perceived as minimal. Although Wi-Fi sharing is common, reports of horror stories are rare. The ActionNews team will have to find something else for its 11:00 PM report.

Although open sharing of wireless networks is fairly common, what caught our attention in the St. Petersburg case was the fact that the bandit stole his Wi-Fi signal while parked in front of the victim's home. It's not clear whether the accused was engaging in illegal activities, but even if not, there seems to be broad acceptance that it isn't socially acceptable to park your rig in front of my house and catch a free broadband surf on my dime. It's not that I'm really worried about you stealing a few bits. I get much more than I can possibly eat from Time-Warner anyway. But I don't even like it when the neighbors park in front of my house, except maybe when there's a party. That's my space.

Somewhere, there's a line of rationality where laws balance with human behavior and social norms. Securing a wireless LAN is a sinfully complex undertaking we expect users to endure in a technology culture where ease-of-use is the most coveted computer system attribute. That Linksys router is about as close to plug-and-play as you can get. And Windows is all too eager to jump on whatever Wi-Fi network it can. Why mess it up with a bunch of security hurdles?

Broadband service providers may feel threatened by the soft boundaries of consumer Wi-Fi networks. In the early days of DSL and cable modems, providers tried to restrict access to a single computer system, but two factors condemned that policy to failure. First, there was legitimate user demand spurred by an increase in the proportion of homes with multiple computers. And as home routers began to flood the market, often with features designed to overcome whatever restrictions service providers might try to use, multi- computer home LANs became the accepted norm. Once Wi-Fi was added to the basic home router, the neighbors could hop a ride for free.

I'm not aware of any systematic studies that have measured the number of people who engage either in deliberate sharing or in anonymous stealing, but the number is surely quite high--and climbing. For some, sharing the broadband connection is a neighborly thing to do, an opportunity to beat the system at very low risk. As technology improves, it will become increasingly easy for people to share should they choose. The latest generation of notebook computers offers significantly enhanced range, and relaxed FCC antenna rules make it easy for an individual to expand the coverage area. As the popularity of MIMO grows, range will get even better. And even if service providers have contract provisions expressly forbidding connection sharing, it's almost impossible to enforce. It conjures up images of the cable police, busting customers for stealing HBO.

Over time, the web of wireless services will grow increasingly complex, making it more difficult to control. Policy-makers will be faced with difficult choices as they seek to balance conflicting interests. Let's just hope that whatever they do, the smell test is applied.