Ars Technica – May 22, 2007:

A Michigan man is being prosecuted for using a cafe’s free WiFi… from his car. Sam Peterson was arrested under a Michigan law barring access to anyone else’s network without authorization, according to Michigan TV station WOOD. Since the cafe’s WiFi network was reserved for customers, and Peterson never came into the cafe, he was essentially piggybacking off of the open network without authorization.

Coincidentally, the cafe owner that Peterson was leeching WiFi off of didn’t even realize that what Peterson was doing was a crime at the time. Neither did the police officer. “I had a feeling a law was being broken, but I didn’t know exactly what,” Sparta police chief Andrew Milanowski told the TV station.

John has written about this “problem” in his PC Magazine column:

The person who owns the signal has to be the responsible party. Grabbing a nearby signal because it is being beamed into your house or car is hardly the same as going into an unlocked residence and stealing the silverware. And it’s not hacking if the signal is not protected. In fact, if I’m getting unprotected signals on my property from people nearby, they’re the ones who are trespassing! What if I do not want these signals interfering with what I want to do?

The way I see it, if someone is shoving a signal down my throat like that, I have every right to use it any way I want to as long, as I’m not doing anything illegal. It’s crazy to think that my using that intrusive signal is illegal.

  1. Tim R says:

    I seem to remember this story from 6+ months ago.

    • Guy sitting in his car outside of a coffeshop getting the feed
    • Employee notices it and asks him to stop.
    • Guy in car continues doing this act on multiple occasions
    • Owner of shop basically confronts the man and asks him to at least buy an occasional coffee. Guy in car declines.
    • Guy in car gets arrested

    I remember this being discussed on TWIT and everyone was a bit in shock over the fact that the owner didn’t take responsibility for his feed.


  2. sirfelix says:

    I do the same thing in my public library parking lot, but there are differences. The wifi is free, and I’m disabled and its easier to stay in the car.

    Businesses can also reduce the signal so that you can only connect indoors, but most owners don’t know how to do this. We have one cafe here that you can get a signal 2 blocks away. I wished I lived in that neighborhood.

    We also have businesses that gives you the passcode to the locked network when you order something. It changes every day. I think this is the best way to deal with this.

  3. Jason says:

    #2: You are right on with your suggestion of a daily rotating password. How hard is that to setup?

    It seems that every story I’ve seen of somewone getting arrested has to do with the person sitting in their car. In re: this story, if the cop did not know it was a crime, then what did he charge the guy with? I would assume tresspassing or something.

    I agree with Dvorak — it is just WAY too dang easy to setup a password on a wireless router; even for the non-geeks. This is a grey area of the law that needs some serious (and rational) attention.

  4. T-Rick says:

    Owners do have to be responsible. I’ve gone to my neighbors and educated them when I’ve found an open signal.

    BUT, metaphorically speaking,

    If my neighbor has a radio up too loud, is it against the law for me to enjoy the music too?

  5. libertas says:

    If my neighbor has a radio up too loud, is it against the law for me to enjoy the music too?

    No, but if the RIAA knew about it they would sue the neighbor for royalties for a public performance.

  6. ECA says:

    If 50% of the USA, spread WiFi, on open terminals….
    then we could ALL have it…

  7. Fred Flint says:

    You could make an argument that people who don’t protect their WiFi connections are aiding and abetting pedophiles and other criminals by hiding their IP addresses, obstructing the police and obstructing justice, not to mention the ‘Holy Order of the Almighty Dollar’ organizations called the RIAA and the MPAA.

    The next time some guy in a car with a laptop gets rousted by the cops, he ought to have the owner of the wireless router arrested.

  8. Lueders says:

    This is another indicator of the degree to which “Stupid” is afoot in the land. Disturbingly, it seems that the highest degree of “Stupid” lives in our official elected leaders and controllers.
    Arresting this guy for using a open wifi link is dumber than the Supreme Court’s ruling (see the story else where in this blog) that citizens should not be allowed to sue or complain about a “wrong house” crash and search.
    We the public have allowed this tomfoolery for way too long already.
    We are at fault here. We have to stand up and say No More”!
    There is a election coming next year. Don’t stay ignorant! Find out who stands with us against this (watch what they have done in the past, not what they say they will do in the future) and elect them. Then watch them and make them live up to their promises and fix these wrongheaded approaches.

  9. sirfelix says:

    #8, people just don’t care anymore. Look at how many people posted here. If the subject was Paris Hilton the board would be overflowing with opinions.
    We are in the beginning of a second Dark Ages. The collapse takes decades, but its coming.

  10. Greg Allen says:

    Traditionally, it’s been ruled that if a somebody broadcasts a signal into your private space (home or car) or even public space, you have the right to receive it.

    It is the responsibility of the broadcaster to encrypt, if the content is sensitive.

    However, the “receiver” has a responsibility not to misuse the signal. (let’s say, for extortion or fraud.)

    This seems so reasonable to me. (If you are bothered by people using your WiFi, then take a minute and turn on WEP, for goodness sake.)

    But, private industry has pretty much bought off our government.

  11. Robertson says:

    I see a lot of people talking about the broadcasting of signals onto public space making the use of unencrypted Wifi legal because the signal is broadcast. It may be true that setting up a Wifi enabled computer to sniff and monitor any traffic broadcast by that Wifi point is comparable to listening to a neighbors loud radio or receiving a radio broadcast.

    That analogy breaks down once you start to connect to the Wifi access point because at that point you are entering the property of the owner of the Wifi access point because you are now actively transmitting signals to the access point in question as this is a two way conversation. Now it could be said if the Wifi is unencrypted they are inviting you in simply by the act of issuing a you an IP address upon a connection attempt. This is probably the best case for saying unencrypted Wifi is legal to use without express consent of the owner.

    However, I think anybody who leaves their Wifi unencrypted is stupid and leaving themselves open to legal liabilities if a criminal act is committed using their Wifi by some third party sitting in a parking lot.
    Some people also assume the guy will have to be sitting across the street because the signals are weak. With a good Wifi antenna some amazing distances can be achieved and somebody considering doing something illegal with your unencrypted wireless may use an Hi gain antenna to put themselves in a location that is not so visible.


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