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WiFi theft: no, you can't just walk into my house if the door is open

by Guy Kewney | posted on 07 July 2005


My sympathy to Benjamin Smith III, who is facing trial for "unauthorised access to a network" - that is to say, using someone else's broadband by logging onto their WiFi.

Guy Kewney

We're not going to get the details till the trial. But according to Associated Press reports, a man called Richard Dinon noticed Smith sitting in a car outside his (Dinon's) house, using a laptop.

Did he feel that the guy was casing the joint? Did he feel threatened? No data, says AP. But (somehow) Dinon discovered that he was using the family WiFi network.

It's not at all clear to me how you do this. It makes me suspect that he called the police for other reasons, and that they asked Smith what he was doing, and Smith said: "I just stopped to collect email, because I found an open WiFi network."

The AP report says nothing about whether Smith admitted the crime; but crime it is, given the way the law is phrased. And frankly, I can't think of a way around the problem.

The problem: if, like me, you really don't care if one of your neighbours logs onto your network, and leave it unsecured, then it would be really rough to have them prosecuted.

But then again, suppose I walk into my house one day, and because it's hot, I leave the front door open to let the breeze through. Suppose you walked in, and sat down at the kitchen table, and helped yourself to an apple from the fruit-bowl... would you feel really surprised if I called the police to have you thrown out?

Ultimately, the person who owns the network has the right to decide who uses it, and if you really want to piggyback on a neighbour, you should ask.

Most of the time, they'll never know. Most of the time, they'll only care if they have a data limit (some low-cost broadband is restricted to how much data you can get down the line per month) or if you slow the network down to the point that they find themselves waiting. But (the important point, for me) ultimately, they have a right to say: "No; it's open for my convenience, not yours."

The question of whether Smith broke the law should be simple enough to establish: if Dinon didn't give permission, he did.

The question of what a suitable punishment would be, is another matter. The level of damage caused, surely, is relevant: I think you'd be very vexed to be thrown into prison for a year or more for stealing my apple. I think Smith would be right to be indignant if he gets more than a black mark on his record.

And finally, "theft" means not just getting a benefit from something, but taking it away from someone else, with intent to deprive them of it.

If I walk past your house and notice that you've got the big screen TV on, and the curtains open, and it's the Wimbledon final, am I stealing from you if I stop briefly and watch the action of the deciding game? Clearly, not. And if you are using a standard broadband, with all-you-can-eat charging, and I read my email over your link, what have I stolen?

Nothing. I think it's pre-judging the case to argue, as Ovum's Roger Entner has been quoted: "This is very similar to you walking down the street where a store has apples and oranges, and you grab one and keep going," in TechNewsWorld. We don't know that, yet.

On the other hand, if half the Dinon family photographs show up on the Smith hard disk, the courts may well take a rather more severe view; so we'll have to wait for the trial, which will follow the current pre-trial.

Bottom line; it's not a severe crime. But the rights of the householder are defined by his intention, not the perception of the burglar. "He left it unlocked" doesn't defend robbery. On the other hand, looking in through the window doesn't qualify as theft, either.

The AP report was published by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer


Anyway, the apple had a worm... - You can discuss this article on our discussion board.