Open WiFi connections abound in any major metropolitan area these days. Recently there have been several articles in regards to local laws regulating the "stealing" of WiFi from unsuspecting neighbors. While local municipalities can make laws in regards to this, here are the problems that I have with these statutes. First of all, the localality does not have the authority to make regulations in regards to the transmissions of wireless signals, that is left to the Federal Communications Commission (Look it up, it has been that way since the Communications Act of 1934). Wi-Fi falls under Title 47 CFR Part 15, which designates it as an unlicensed service. Since the wireless link itself has no "real estate" or exclusive license for the spectrum, you would need to prove that:
- There was due dilligence to lock down the access point with WEP/WPA or some sort of encryption or access control.
- There was a theft of services (i.e. bandwidth caps were exceeded, customer charged for overage)
- Or there was a denial of service (i.e. user could not access the bandwidth that was paid for)
- Or there was malicious and/or nefarious network activity going on (i.e. surfing kidding porn from the SUV or running a spam server on your internet connection)
The municipality that tried to prosecute someone in their car surfing WiFi, would have an easier time accussing the suspect of some sort of physical trespassing or loitering. Beyond this, unless the accused was stupid enough to say "hey, I'm stealing that signal", the municipality has no probable cause to search the computer or to detain you. What is to say that your proximity to a WiFi source is coincidence and you are just surfing the web through a 3G cellular connection.
Here is an analogy:
If you ran an extension cord to your front lawn and connected a landline phone, then a passerby uses that phone to make a call to a local number or toll free long disitance, are they commiting a crime? You have made your connection accessible and they have not incurred any costs associated to your account. Who then is to blame?
Time has an interesting article about the subject: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1813969,00.html