An Unsecured Wi-Fi Network Equals an Open Invitation

Opinion: A Florida man has been charged with a third-degree felony for accessing someone else's Wi-Fi network. But doesn't leaving a network open invite others to use it?

The moral of this story may be that if youre going to use someone elses Wi-Fi network, dont draw attention to yourself. Thats the mistake a Florida man made, and now hes charged with a third-degree felony.

The Associated Press reports that Benjamin Smith III was spotted using a laptop in his car while parked in front of the home of Richard Dinon, who must not be terribly bright since he didnt secure the network. Smith, who police say admits to accessing Dinons Wi-Fi network, has been charged with unauthorized access to a computer network.

Dinon perhaps should be charged with a crime against intelligence for making a big deal out of this, though I can appreciate that he might be concerned about someone sitting in a car outside his home.

The AP says this is one of the first prosecutions, certainly the first Ive heard of, involving a fairly common practice among wireless Internet users. Smith is due in court later this month.

If I were Smiths attorney, Id defend my client by pointing out that many people intentionally leave a Wi-Fi access point unsecured so "guests" can use it to access the Internet.

Something makes me think Dinons network had an SSID (service set identifier) of "public" or "default" or maybe even "linksys," all of which Ive seen pop up on my own computer from time to time. I know of no way that a potential user could determine whether guest access is or isnt acceptable to the open access points owner.

Dinon should have secured his network if he didnt want to share his connection with everyone in range of his base station. Since he apparently didnt do that—it isnt difficult, after all—then he created an open network. Prosecuting someone for taking advantage of it seems quite a stretch.

Yes, there is a case to be made that Smith was not illegally accessing Dinons network, but the ISPs network instead. In that case, it would be interesting if Smith had the same ISP for his own home broadband network. In which case, he would be an authorized user but in breach of contract, a far cry from a third-degree felony.

Regular readers will wonder what the difference is between stealing music via a peer-to-peer file-swapping network and logging on to someone elses open Wi-Fi. I admit there may be no difference and I am exercising a double standard. But using an open network you happen to find for a non-malicious purpose seems victimless.

In this case, I bet Dinon didnt pay anything extra because of Smiths use of the Wi-Fi network. So, as long as Smith wasnt accessing Dinons files, I dont see what Dinon has to complain about. Save a car parked in front of his house.

Getting the police to chase Smith off should have ended it. Though in my community, getting a cop out to the house for a mere suspicious vehicle takes more than an hour. Perhaps Smith had been sitting in front of Dinons home long enough to wear-out anybodys welcome.

The AP story is a tad short on detail, but as merely a case of "man steals open Wi-Fi, gets arrested," I think the gravity of the felony charge hardly matches the crime, if there even was one (which I dont think there was).

I hope we can come to some sort of national consensus that leaving a network open is an invitation for use by others. I was once in a Starbucks where someone in the same building had set up an open network, called "linksys." I am betting this administrator did it on purpose to offer an alternative to the Starbucks-paid hot spot. You can guess which network the Starbucks patrons were using.

Secure networks should remain so, even if the administrator picks a weak password. Had Dinon been running a secure network, Smith clearly would have been in the wrong and the charges warranted.

Grabbing an open network to check e-mail is a common practice in some circles. I dont happen to think its stealing, but even if it is, a felony charge seems pretty stiff. I hope Mr. Smith will eventually win his battle. And that Mr. Dinon will secure his network and leave the rest of us alone.


Check out eWEEK.coms for the latest news, reviews and analysis on mobile and wireless computing.