Over the last week there has been something of a fuss over a guy getting fined for "wardriving." Wardriving is the act of driving around until you find someplace where someone has not secured their WiFi connection and using it to access the internet. Why would someone do this? Well, believe it or not, some geeks do it for fun. Some people do it because they don't have their own access to the net or their access is of limited speed. There is also the potential that people are using it to hide illicit activities such as hacking or downloading porn. However, in the case in Illinois it doesn't appear that anything along those lines was occurring. At least there was no charge for it and I'm pretty sure they took his computer and checked it out.
Why then did the prosecution go forward? "The prosecution appears to have been a largely symbolic one for deterrent effect: the defendant pled guilty and received a $250 fine plus a year of court supervision, and the prosecutors released statements to the press about how this should be a warning to others." More facts of the case can be found at ars technica.
Technically the charge was about the uninvited use of another's network. This has set off a number of derisive comments around the blogs and this humorous conversation on TWIT which, in addition to pointing out how this law is nearly impossible to enforce also points out how hard it might actually be to not break this law unless you disable your computer's reception of WiFi. One blogger compares this conviction to convicting someone for using water from a sprinkler which sprays into a public area. A comment over at Orin's talks about how the law must choose a fence-in or fence-out method.
Why are these laws in place? Well, one reason could be for law enforcement purposes; if you can restrict people to the use of only their own web provider it is much easier to prove who is doing something wrong over the internet. However, I suspect these laws are driven more by business interests than anything else. The internet provider doesn't want people to access free internet; they've been fairly blatant about this in pushing to pre-empt low cost or free internet provided by municipalities (see the Pennsylvania Plan).
Where do I stand? Well, I personally believe that if you don't protect your network you are inviting others to use it. How do I come to this conclusion? Well, to begin with protecting a network is very simple and, while the protection may be fairly easy to crack, provides a clear indicator that the person providing the network does not want you to access the bandwdith he is paying for. As well, the person who has set up the network has already paid for every bit of access that runs through it. How he uses it is his business and the internet provider doesn't really have a claim of theft. It may have a claim of contract breach against it's internet customer if the contract specifies no open WiFi network, but it doesn't have a claim against a third party user of the already paid for access.
In my office building I have a WiFi network set up so my secretary can access the internet and I can use my portable computer. There are 5 other networks set up in the same building. One is protected and one is purely computer to computer- 3 are open access. The problem I run into is that the office next door must have some sort of booster or something attached to his broadcaster because it is always as powerful as my signal and sometimes more powerful. About 30% of the time my computers will go to that network instead of mine automatically. I'm sure there's some way to fix this, but it's not really my fault. That office didn't protect its network and it obviously has range to reach my office (and the whole building for that matter). Why should I be responsible for that?