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Information Technology
Leicester MA

Man fined for leeching WiFi

Joe Conley on Monday, 27 March 2006.

"An Illinois man pleaded guilty this week to remotely accessing another computer system without the owner's approval and was handed one year of court supervision and a US$250 fine. David Kauchak was spotted using his laptop inside of his parked car in the middle of the night by a police officer this past January. The officer discovered that Kauchak was using an unprotected wireless access point belonging to a not-for-profit agency and cited him."The technical charge is "unauthorized access to a computer network," but it gets a bit hazy when you consider that the signal is perhaps being broadcast into your car or your home, or the public street, and a lot of the time, it's not secured.

How can a person tell the difference between a network that has been left open on purpose, to be shared with anyone nearby, compared to a network that is unintentionally shared because a home user is not tech savvy enough to know how to restrict access? The line is very hazy.

When I was down in Savannah, there was no internet connection in our house we rented. But there was a motel down the street that advertised "Free WiFi." I went there and used their signal from outside for awhile to check my email because I was waiting for important job information. But I was eventually asked to leave (nicely) by the security official of the motel. Now the sign advertised "Free WiFi," and didn't specify that it was for customers only, but I think that is generally understood.

Later in the week, we found a library that also offered Free WiFi, and it was clearly intended for public use. The signals from both the motel and the library were open to the public. Neither of them had any password protection or restricted access in any way. Why is it that I could potentially be fined for using one and not the other?

If I'm unfamiliar with the area and I notice both signals and I don't know where they are originating from, how do I know one is legal for me to use and the other isn't? Do "No trespassing on my network" signs need to be posted? Does it come down to whether or not the owner of the network wants to press charges?

With the increasing range of wireless with technologies like 802.11n, and the rising number of wireless networks as more people adopt the technology, it's clear this is a line that needs to be drawn.