We have covered this type of story before: a man finds an open wireless access point, parks in front of the home or business containing the WAP, surfs away on his laptop, and the police are called. The story has played itself out once again, this time in Vancouver, WA, where 20-year-old Alexander Eric Smith was arrested after a three-month stretch where he periodically parked in front of a coffee shop off-and-on with a laptop and used its WAP.
The kicker? He never bought so much as a small latte.
Brewed Awakenings manager Emily Pranger finally tired of his presence and called 911. Police came and told Smith to surf elsewhere. After returning, he was taken into custody and charged with theft of services.
Note that unlike other cases, he was not charged with unauthorized use of a computer network. Instead, the premise for his arrest is that he used Brewed Awakenings’ free WiFi network without buying anything from them.
Open WAPs are tempting in certain situations. When camping, I’ve driven into town in search of an open WAP to check e-mail or get my Lounge fix. However, law enforcement types seem to be paying more attention to WiFi leeching these days. An Illinois man was fined US$250 earlier this year after pleading guilty to remotely accessing another computer system without the owner’s approval. That followed the conviction of a Florida man for felony unauthorized access to computer network in 2005.
Fears over what people might be doing over wireless networks appear to be driving the concern over wardriving. It turns out that Smith is a convicted sex offender. It therefore follows that he was using the coffee shop’s WiFi to look a porn or something equally nefarious </sarcasm>.
What I find fascinating is that when newspapers and TV stations report on occurrences such as this, they generally magnify the scope of the problem and put an alarmist spin on it.
On a random neighborhood street in Vancouver, a KATU News laptop detected 11 networks, five of which were unsecured, meaning anyone could log on to them for free.
A computer expert told KATU News there is no way to know if someone is using your wireless connection without permission.
Actually, there is. In addition, it is so trivial to turn on security for a home (or business) WAP, that there is no reason anyone should leave a WiFi network unprotected unless he or she really wants it to be open to all comers. Perhaps the sensationalized reporting that usually follows cases like this arises out of the fact that most people (media included) don’t really understand how computers in general—and wireless networking in particular—work. Until people are better educated, those tempted by open access points are better off carefully considering whether or not to open up the laptop and start surfing.