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Wi-Fi News Coverage: A Plea to the Press

July 5th, 2005

The latest from the Embarrassing Florida News Department: Police arrested a man in St. Petersburg, Florida for briefly using an open wi-fi access point in a public place.

The clueless cops charged Benjamin Smith III with “unauthorized access to a computer network, a third-degree felony,” according to the St. Petersburg Times.

Every day thousands of people do what this poor guy did. And they have no idea they’re felons. I’ll wager that most wi-fi users think that if a hotspot in a public place is open (i.e., if it announces its presence to the world via SSID broadcast and it’s not WEP encrypted or password protected), using it to access the Internet is legal and ethical. Such use is common practice.

The St. Petersburg Times article about this arrest belongs in the National Enquirer. It refers to Smith’s off-the-shelf wi-fi use as “hacking” into a computer network. (Of course the writer makes The Obligatory Greenhorn Tech-Reporter Mistake: use of the term “hacking” to mean “maliciously breaking into a computer network.” But that’s not the real problem.)

Imagine this: You’re at home. Your window’s closed. Your neighbor’s window is open. She plays a catchy tune on her stereo. You open your window to hear the song more clearly.

Now cops arrest you for opening your window.

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What Smith did was akin to what you’ve just done — it wasn’t akin to breaking and entering. Your neighbor already paid for her stereo and the electricity to power it; whether or not you listen, she can still enjoy the music. If she’s insane or just mean-spirited she might slam her window shut or wear headphones. But if her head contains an ounce of intelligence she won’t accuse you of breaking and entering.

If your neighbor has a wi-fi router, she can choose to share it with neighbors, or she can easily lock it up if she doesn’t like to share. If she doesn’t lock it and others use it to browse the Web or check their e-mail, they haven’t “hacked” into her system, any more than gazing at the Christmas lights across the street constitutes robbery.

The reporter and the police in this story seem to assume that using wi-fi equals breaking into someone’s personal files, that Smith had access to someone else’s personal computer. But using someone’s wi-fi access point is something very different from accessing his personal computer and files.

The reporter conflates the usual assortment of shocking crimes (kiddie porn, credit card theft, death threats) with the common use of open wi-fi networks. He apparently hasn’t sought evidence to back up his claims, and he fails to point out the harmless and productive uses thousands of people put open wi-fi networks to every day.

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This article was off the scale. But too much other recent wi-fi coverage has been misinformed and dangerously sensationalized. If this sort of lazy, irresponsible reporting continues, it will encourage ham-handed legislation that will criminalize uses of new technology before we even understand what new social benefits we’re prohibiting.

Reporters, I’m not quick to gripe about the press. You work hard and you’re underpaid and underappreciated. I know this because I was a daily newspaper reporter for two years. But if you’re not careful here you can do real damage. Please realize that wi-fi issues are much more subtle, complex, and politicized than they appear at first glance. Please run your assumptions and others’ claims by people who understand the social, legal and technical intricacies of wi-fi. And please get both sides of the story. For almost every party that makes a strong claim about wi-fi, there’s another group arguing the opposite point.

In the mainstream coverage of wi-fi issues that I’ve seen, the interests of the big telecom companies and of overeager and underinformed law enforcement personnel have been strongly overrepresented. Please balance out your coverage; please seek out the other side of the story. A useful starting point: the Electronic Frontier Foundation (www.eff.org).

3 Responses to “Wi-Fi News Coverage: A Plea to the Press”

  1. comment number 1 by: Sean

    Thanks Joe

    Perhaps I was a bit harsh.. But not too much.

    The article frames Smith as a nefarious bad guy who was maliciously destroying or invading or stealing someone else’s private property. It came just short of stating that he was doing this in order to accomplish some darker crime (credit card theft, kiddie porn, etc.)

    Meanwhile, the “criminal” was doing something that thousand of people do every day and don’t consider immoral much less illegal: simply using an open wi-fi access point in a public place.

    The reporter’s ignorance of the subject matter and his willingness to run to press with this will damage this innocent man’s reputation, will frighten the public needlessly, etc. That’s just not right.

  2. comment number 2 by: from Grey Squirrel

    Questions for ….

    In this first installment of the OUPblog bookclub, Lee Epstein and Jeffrey Segal answer questions on the Miers nomination and the future of the Judiciary branch under Bush’s picks. Enjoy!

  3. comment number 3 by: from Grey Grehem

    Questions for ….

    In this first installment of the OUPblog bookclub, Lee Epstein and Jeffrey Segal answer questions on the Miers nomination and the future of the Judiciary branch under Bush’s picks. Enjoy!

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