Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Should Accessing Open Wi-Fi Spots be Illegal?

In Palmer, Alaska, Brian Tanner was arrested for using the public library's wi-fi in their parking when the library was closed. Local police had tired of chasing Tanner from various locations where he was accessing open ended wi-fi and arrested him. They confiscated his laptop to see what files Tanner had downloaded as well.

Is this really a legal issue or the responsibility of the people who hold the access points? All wi-fi hardware/software allow their owners to create password protected access so that only selected users may take advantage of it. If an owner fails to opt for this protection, does it mean they can still say "no, you can't use it" and be legally binding?

We really haven't set up ethical rules for the digital age yet. We still argue over ideas like privacy for users in public settings, rights applied to digital information, what can/cannot be written over emails and whether we should have some sort of program in place to restrict content to certain users on public computers.

Our computers are designed to find hotspots now and even default to open wi-fi networks when available. My Nintendo Wii has actually picked up two other open networks near my house along with my own wireless system. If an upgrade was placed into the program to access the fastest network or default to another open network when my wireless went down, would it make me criminally liable?

It seems this is more of an ethical question over a legal one. I certainly wouldn't argue that Tanner seems to have a lack in ethics and common sense but it also seems that there were protective measures the library could take to prevent his access as well.

In the physical world we have many different legal words for the various types of theft as it is not simply a black and white issue. Are we going to find ourselves at a point where we need to do the same for the digital world as well?

On a semi-tangent; is his being chased from point to point really enough evidence to confiscate the laptop?

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At February 27, 2007 1:34 PM, Blogger Kenley Neufeld said...

I think this seems a little ridiculous. If a business wants to block after hours access to the wi-fi, simply turn it off just like you would lock the door.

At February 27, 2007 2:44 PM, Blogger Tyler Rousseau said...

The follow up reports that have been published (thanks to Liz Burns for passing them along!!) are a little weird in this as well.

The laptop is still confiscated although no charges have been brought onto Tanner. For some reason he has to wait for the library director to come back before he can get it.

At March 07, 2007 1:07 PM, Blogger Matt Hamilton said...

This is all pretty scary in its implications, as you correctly state most of our devices default to simply seeking out a wifi network that is close. A friend of mine recently asked me to help her with her wireless network and when I got to her house, I quickly realized that she wasn't using her network. She'd accidentally been using her neighbors'.

It seems like the police in this town are overstepping their authority. It's probably a good idea for ALA to issue a statement on this... It's disappointing that the library itself is not standing up for their patron.

At March 20, 2007 3:11 PM, Blogger two bits said...

The "first available network" is an issue. The wireless in my apt goes down all the time (grumble grumble lousy C**cast) and my computer sometimes hijacks the neighbor's without notice. I can usually view 5 networks at any one time, and only two are secured.

At June 11, 2007 9:26 PM, Anonymous djb said...

What's worse is that this is a PUBLIC network. I'm sure the library encourages people, including Tanner, to use it. The only mal I see is that it was "after hours". Is there an ethical problem with access after closing?

At December 29, 2009 12:05 AM, Blogger OmegaWolf747 said...

So, did Brian Tanner ever get his laptop back? If the cops didn't have a warrant, they had no legal authority to go through his computer. I hope he sued.


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