Using Open Wifi is Apparently Now Stealing

This issue was bound to come up sooner or later and naturally be based on the fact that those who are in charge of enforcing the law don’t often understand what they’re enforcing because it is beyond their scope of knowledge. I don’t mean this as an insult, because you wouldn’t ask a rocket scientist to make a new pair of shoes for you. Still though, these overlaps in knowledge are tricky when a person’s freedoms are on the line.
It was a few days ago that the fact that a British fellow was arrested for using an open wifi network broke on El Pais, but was followed up on The Guardian and Wired. Essentially, a guy was doing what we all do these days. He found an open wifi network, popped on to it and surfed the web, only to be hauled in by the cops. There was no, “Hey don’t do that.” or anything like that. No, they arrested him and cited a mix of laws that I don’t know about, but probably exist in some parallel form in the US. Or maybe they’re even worse given the Patriot Act.
Beyond the rather broad statement of “Ah, what gives, we all do that?”, I am a bit freaked out by this because I really have been doing this. I was harassed by two very cheesy undercover cops while using a laptop in a car. Thankfully, they just gave me a hard time and left me alone. But, given this recent development, I apparently need to watch myself.
An open wifi network like this guy used, is just that. Anyone can join it who has a wifi enabled laptop. Admittedly, it’s a rather stupid thing to have an open network because people can surf any number of illegal sites, download porn, or hack the IRS d-base (always sounds cooler when Keanu says it.) But, you can block a good deal of all of this and if you do, then this is a rather nice thing to do because it allows people quick web access, which can be really useful when traveling.
But, let’s back up a few steps and put this in to easier terms and understand what happened in this case in Britain. Say you’re out on a street somewhere and there is a porch light that’s illuminating where you are. You then use this porch light to read a map or check your old school analog watch. This is okay, right? Well, what happens if you use this porch light to allow you to break in to a car? This is obviously not all right, but how is the owner to know what you’re going to do with that light that is there? They don’t and such are the risks of putting anything out for the general public to use. Still, the law of averages are in the porch light owner’s favor that nothing will happen, so he keeps it going as a favor to people.
Legalities aside, should you be paying the owner for the use of that light and electricity? And if you don’t, are you stealing? The common sense answer to this is that the owner is not responsible for your actions with the light they provide and if they put the light out there, then it’s yours to use.
This simple logic is being crushed by over zealous law enforcement, because using open wireless networks is pretty much the exact same thing. In fact it’s even more ridiculous that someone get charged with stealing internet than stealing light because unlike a light, you can’t see a wireless network. The network has to want to be found and thusly is broadcasting itself to be found. Then, once found, if not requiring authentication it is soundly and without any argument not theft. If it is undesirable to have a network open, then it is actually easier to stop people from using it than stopping people from using a porch light because with one quick change, you can put a password on it. Then, if people defeat the password (because they can be gotten around these days) they are committing a crime and breaking in to a secure network. In this instance, even if you use a dumb password like ‘password’, by encrypting your network you are effectively saying, “Stay out. This is private.”
People need to keep in mind that network communications are two way. With wifi, it’s basically like the porch light owner sees you standing out on the street and says, “Hey I have a light, would you like me to turn it in?” and if you say yes and he does, then there is no crime committed. It isn’t obvious, but computers have this communication with each other every time they send data whether it be wired or wireless.
In the end, I don’t know how all of this is going to shake down and I hope that in some way, some lawyer can explain this in a court of law to set a precedent. But given many peoples’ general technical know how in the legal system (they do law, not computers) I fear that we may be in for a bumpy ride for the next couple of years until someone will real money or backing can fight another one of these if they continue to happen and spread to the US. Are you ready, EFF?
Using Open Wifi is Apparently Now Stealing