WiFi and the Law. Are you breaking the law?

The BBC carried an article today that may affect home WiFi users in the UK. This is not the first case of its kind, and likely won’t be the last. A UK court has fined a man 500 pounds and a 12-month conditional discharge for using his neighbor’s wireless Internet connection. The man had been seen in the area over a period of time and was accessing the wireless network from his car parked near the owners residence.

What gets me about this particular case is there is no indication that the man was not using the connection for illegal means. His access is ethically questionable but not criminal in intent, and since the network was not secured was he actually guilty of an offence?

Some people have likened an unsecured home network to a house with the front door left wide open. Which if you enter, you are considered breaking and entering. It is important to keep in mind if you leave your front door open and get robbed you might also be liable for being robbed and subsequently fined or charged. The same applies to an unsecured wireless network, if you leave it open for anyone to connect too as soon as they detect the signal you can and will be liable for any illegal use of that connection.

I disagree with the comparison since entering a person’s home is a conscience act where you are accessing someone home which you have no rights too. On the flip side wireless signals are being transmitted all around us with no thought to property boundaries and wireless technology is configured by default to automatically connect as soon as a signal is detected. In my own home I can access several wireless networks that have no user controls such as a username and password. To me the owners of these networks have implied that I can have access by not requiring me to fulfill some kind of access control like that the one on my universities network. In that case a user name and password combination is used to control network access .

What mainly disturbs me about this ruling, and others like it, is that a precedent is being set, where by connecting to a network that is not your own may be in violation of some law. Even if the owner has not taken proper precautions to protect their systems.

The answer to this should be case law that reflects both the intent of the user and the protection of the owner. In the case of the British individual he had established a pattern of behavior that demonstrated he was aware that he was illicitly using his neighbors connection. But what if he had connected to it automatically and only used it to check his mail? Or in the case of neighbor’s who reside close enough together, and one connects to the others network thinking it is his or her own. Is that an illegal use, or use with intent to commit an offence?

It is time that Canadian lawmakers take this opportunity to review and establish a clear set of rules regarding wireless networks and their use. When is accessing an open (by open we mean unsecured) network an offence and when is it just taking advantage of a good thing?

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I run this place.

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