If you’re traveling or temporarily without Internet service, you might be tempted to look around for unsecured WiFi networks and access the Internet through a wireless connection that doesn’t have a password. The problem comes with the unclear laws around Internet access. If you access the Internet through your neighbor’s unsecured connection, are you going to be in legal trouble?
The answer isn’t straightforward, unfortunately. Internet service providers, the law, and the owners of the wireless Internet service all may have different answers when it comes to the legality of using others’ WiFi. Here are some factors to consider when deciding whether to connect to that unprotected network.
The law is outdated.
Lawmakers haven’t caught up to the digital age yet – the most relevant law was made in 1986, long before WiFi networks were invented – so the law is not black and white on the issue yet. Computer hackers are prosecuted, but WiFi thieves are not regularly pursued by law enforcement agencies, if that is what you’re wondering. On the other hand, the outdated law means that it isn’t clear what you can legally do.
Attorneys will consider each case.
For now, WiFi theft would be considered on a case-by-case basis depending on what the specifics of your case are. They might consider how long you were connected to the signal, what you were using the signal for, and whether illegal activity occurred. If you connect to a WiFi network specifically to avoid having your actions linked to your own IP address, the law will not look kindly upon you. It’s hard to know how you could be prosecuted, but judges would have great power to decide at their discretion.
WiFi companies may sue sharers.
If you’re concerned about your own WiFi signal, consider that you could be prosecuted by the company providing your Internet service. Though rare, it has happened before when Time Warner sued an apartment building that was considered to be sharing access. ISPs obviously have a vested interest in seeing every individual purchase their own Internet access, so although it is unlikely, you should consider this possibility.
Illegal activities are the main problem.
For owners of the wireless signals, the main problem is their responsibility for illegal activities. If someone connects to your network and downloads a copyrighted file or distributes spam or viruses, it will be linked to your IP address. It can be difficult to prove that it wasn’t you performing this activity, so you can wind up in legal trouble for things you didn’t do. Protecting your network is always the best option.
Consider your intent first.
Based on all of these facts, if you’re the one connecting to a network, stop and think about your intent. If you’re trying to avoid being caught doing something illegal, don’t connect to a WiFi. Stealing or conducting illegal activities on someone else’s WiFi will not fully protect you, and you may get innocent people in serious legal trouble.
There are no clear laws right now about the legality of connecting to someone else’s WiFi. While it is not outright considered stealing, if you use someone else’s wireless Internet for a long time, it could lead to legal trouble if you are exposed and a judge decides this is an offense.
Michael Keeler enjoys keeping up with the latest advances in wireless technologies. He is a wireless security consultant for businesses and his articles mainly appear on tech blogs. Click here to learn about speedy internet access.