What's Yours Is Mine: Using a Wireless Network You Don't Own

A Dutch court recently found hacking wireless networks to be legal, but how do things work in the United States?

205975-free_wifi_wireless_original.jpgEarlier this month, a Dutch court ruled that breaking into an encrypted router to use somebody else's Wi-Fi connection is not a criminal offense. (The original article, in Dutch, is available here. Use Google, or another service, to translate.) The news sparked a flood of comments (233 at the time of this writing) on Slashdot, the long-running repository of tech-related "news for nerds." Some readers supported the ruling, others disagreed with it -- and heated debate broke out. "If I place a password on my router and use encryption, it is OBVIOUS it is a private network," one commenter argued. "Breaking into that network for ANY reason is, essentially, trespassing and SHOULD be a criminal offense. It doesn't matter the reason." (Emphasis is original.)

Should be? Maybe. But it isn't, at least not in the Netherlands. It's unclear from his comment where user markdavis is writing from, but breaking into encrypted routers -- and even using open wireless networks -- is still illegal in many countries, PCWorld reminds us. "Hacking or even 'piggybacking' on an open WiFi connection is illegal in a wide variety of nations," Loek Essers wrote.

How do things work in the United States? Well, it's not exactly clear. There are laws regarding the unauthorized access of a network in each of the 50 states, but a consensus has not yet been reached on how piggybacking, or the access of open wireless networks without the intent to do harm, should be treated in the courts.

"The reason we lack a definitive answer," Ryan Singel wrote in the April 2011 issue of Wired, "is that authorities tend to prosecute open Wi-Fi usage only when they are piling charges onto real hacking crimes in order to snag a plea deal. As a result, authorized use, as it applies to the vaguely worded CFAA [Computer Fraud and Abuse Act], has never been laid out definitively in court."

For his short article, "Burning Question: Is Wi-Fi Squatting Illegal," which is available on newsstands but does not yet appear online, Singel spoke to at least one expert in cyberlaw and an attorney who once worked as the civil liberties director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Both agreed that, while you can't rule out a prosecution in the future, it's probably OK to piggyback on an open wireless connection in the U.S. "Now, more than in the past, using open wireless can be considered authorized," the former civil liberties director told Singel. As we, users of the Internet, have grown more savvy over the years, we've locked up our networks. As a result, it's now assumed -- or "reasonable to assume" -- that open networks are left that way on purpose.

While security firms -- and others, but mostly, it seems, security firms -- advocate for leaving your wireless network locked at all times ("You would never leave your door unlocked, and neither should you leave your wireless network unprotected," wrote Tim Fitzgerald at Cartwheel), others champion open networks. BoingBoing's Cory Doctorow revealed that he's been running open networks since the late '90s when he wrote about Bruce Scheier's essay for Wired on the subject. "I can't count the number of times I've had my ass saved by an open wireless network at the right moment (e.g., in good time to help me look up directions, a phone number, or flight details)," Doctorow wrote. "I figure the more open wireless I provide to the world, the more people I'll turn on to providing their own open wireless access, and the more open WiFi I'm likely to find."