Friday, July 8, 2005

Don't Bogart That Wi-Fi Connection

An article in the St. Pete Times (here -- discussed on TalkLeft here) reviews a case in which a homeowner noticed a truck parked outside his home with the faint glow of a computer screen in the cab.  After seeing the truck again later that evening, the homeowner called the police, who determined that Benjamin Smith III was using the Wi-Fi network being broadcast from the house to access the internet.  A CNN.Com story (here) notes that Smith will have a pre-trial hearing on a charge of unauthorized access to a computer network, a felony in Florida.  The Florida statute (Title XLVI, Sec. 815.06(1)) provides:

(1) Whoever willfully, knowingly, and without authorization:(a) Accesses or causes to be accessed any computer, computer system, or computer network; (b) Disrupts or denies or causes the denial of computer system services to an authorized user of such computer system services, which, in whole or part, is owned by, under contract to, or operated for, on behalf of, or in conjunction with another; (c) Destroys, takes, injures, or damages equipment or supplies used or intended to be used in a computer, computer system, or computer network; (d) Destroys, injures, or damages any computer, computer system, or computer network; or (e) Introduces any computer contaminant into any computer, computer system, or computer network -- commits an offense against computer users.

It's an interesting question whether Smith is guilty of a crime when the homeowner's wireless network is not encrypted or otherwise protected, so that any passerby with a laptop equipped with a wireless card could access the person's internet connection.  Is a personal internet connection a "computer system" or "computer network"?  If it is, then while Smith's access was not specifically "authorized" by the homeowner, is it an "unauthorized" access if one essentially leaves the door open to an internet connection?  If Smith hacked into the connection, then it would be an easy case, but that does not appear to be what happened here.  Of course, if a person used the network to access personal information of the homeowner, or engaged in transactions in the homeowner's bank account or anything like that by using the internet connection, that would seem to be unauthorized access because the connection is being used for a nefarious purpose even if it were not otherwise protected.  But the crime there would be the misuse of the WI-Fi connection and not simply accessing it.

If Smith were merely retrieving or sending e-mail from a web account (I recall a post by Gordon Smith [no relation, I assume] on the Conglomerate blog mentioning his search for a Wi-Fi hot spot in Sweden, I believe) or checking on baseball scores, would his conduct be criminal just because he used an internet connection owned by another person?  His use of the internet through the Wi-Fi connection would probably not affect the homeowner's use of the internet, so there would not be any harm in that sense.  The Florida statute appears to target misuse of the computer network, much like the federal statute (18 U.S.C. Sec. 1030 punishes unauthorized access that is then misused to obtain information, damages computers, or commit a fraud), and it's not clear that Smith did anything improper while hunched over his laptop in the truck cab.  Of course, as the St. Pete Times article notes, the internet companies view free use of a Wi-Fi network as theft, but they're hardly an unbiased party.  The crime is not theft of an internet connection, but unauthorized use.  Maybe Smith is just really cheap, which is not a crime in most jurisdictions. (ph)

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