Potential Legal Risks with Unauthorized Wi-Fi Access

Potential Legal Risks with Unauthorized Wi-Fi Access

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Bruce Schneier pointed out an interesting article that got me thinking and even made me laugh a little. From the article:

Suppose you turn on your laptop while sitting at the kitchen table at home and respond “OK” to a prompt about accessing a nearby wireless Internet access point owned and operated by a neighbor. What potential liability may ensue from accessing someone else’s wireless access point? How about intercepting wireless connection signals? What about setting up an open or unsecured wireless access point in your house or business? Attorneys can expect to grapple with these issues and other related questions as the popularity of wireless technology continues to increase.

One doesn't always have to consciously connect to another WAP, however. Many times has my Linksys Wireless-G Game Adapter will decide that my signal isn't optimal and will jump to someone else's unsecured WAP. Fortunately unintentional access seem to (currently) be protected:

The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (“CFAA”) makes punishable whoever “intentionally accesses a computer without authorization or exceeds authorized access and thereby obtains — . . . information from any protected computer if the conduct involves interstate or foreign communication.”

I do typically notice such a jump right away, as many of my neighbors have only an 11 Mbps WAP. I still have yet to figure out why the jump even happens. I have changed the channel on my WAP while all my neighbors seem to be using the default channel Linksys configures: 6. This leads me to the somewhat funny part of the article:

In a residential area, the WAP name may refer to a neighbor’s last name, such as in “Jones Family Access Point.” The act of choosing an access point in this context could provide evidence of intentional access.

In all residential areas where WAPs have appeared they're almost always set to "linksys" or "default" or whatever the manufacturer set. In this plug-and-play world, most people probably don't even use the installation CD which is typically just a wizard to set up the WAP. I certainly didn't. This along with using the default channel and not using WEP, WPA, or even setting up a white list of MAC addresses - which is what I do on my WAP - causes a real problem when considering how the CFAA reads. Hopefully any additional legislation regarding wireless access considers this issue and a legal precedence is set to carefully weigh these problems.

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  • Interesting. I also have yet to figure out why the jumping even happens - Windows XP seems to always be looking "the next best" connection. :-)
  • Sean, the interesting thing is that I do have the best connection. "Very good" is the typical strength and I seem to be the only one in range that has a 54 Mbps. In this particular case, though, it's the Wireless-G adapter that's jumping. Windows XP is probably just reacting to something as well - perhaps a "hiccup" in service?

    You can configure XP to not connect to non-preferred networks, though. In your network properties for your wireless card, you can add and remove preferred networks. Click on the "Advanced" button and uncheck "Automatically connect to non-preferred networks". Unfortunately I haven't found such a setting on my Wireless-G adapter.

  • accidental is fine but how do you block someone from deliberately using your connection,such as neighbours?
    this is happening to me.
  • Mephalaman, most - if not all modern - routers support several different types of security features, including MAC address filtering (hardware addresses) and authentication. I personally use MAC address filtering to support older devices. My router doesn't appear to be "secure" as some software sees it (usually showing some sort of lock icon) but reset assured my neighbors won't be able to connect.

    I'd also recommend changing the channel from your default if its set to 6. Having the same channel as everyone else around you in a condo or apartment complex can cause connections to jump. It might also improve signal strength. Consult your router documentation for details on both changing the channel and setting up some sort of security.
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