An article published on Thursday confirmed that one of the big grey areas in the current explosion in computer communications had been cleared up, at least for the UK.
A user with a wi-fi laptop had found an unprotected wireless network at a domestic address in Ealing, and on three occasions had been spotted sat outside in his car using the connection. As a result the user had been prosecuted and convicted under the Communications Act, and was fined Â£500, given a 12 month conditional discharge, and had his laptop and wi-fi card confiscated.
Having said that, finding an unprotected wireless connection is not exactly difficult. Although our network at home is encrypted, hidden and controlled by an access list, our two wi-fi equiped computers can usually see two or three other networks which are totally unprotected. In fact when I was first setting up our wi-fi Beth’s laptop couldn’t initially locate our network and Windows automatically logged on to one of the other networks and started downloading!
As an example of the extent of the problem a friend once drove back from docklands to Finchampstead using his wirless laptop hooked up to a GPS to navigate. At the same time he had a copy of NetStubmler running which plotted in excess of 1500 unprotected networks over the 40 mile journey. Slightly worryingly whilst there were plenty in residential areas, the greatest density of unprotected wireless was in the city – from office blocks.
The grey area has come from the debate over access. People who have borrowed these connections are not physically trespassing, or gaining unauthorised access to buildings in any way, the argument being that because the signal is available in public areas it is free to use to the public. It is up to the owners to ensure that it is protected if they don’t want it used. What the court case has done is drawn the line at a different point. As a non-computer type analogy, it could be compared with a person who leaves their front door wide open, and you just pop in the door and make a quick call on their phone.