What are your local laws regarding the use of someone else’s WiFi?


Wifi_logoI just caught this story from a few days ago: a 39-year old Briton was arrested for using someone’s broadband over a WiFi connection without permission. Apparently in the U.K. you have the Computer Misuse Act and the Communications Act which make this practice illegal. I honestly don’t know if we have a similar law here in the U.S. at either the national, state or local level in my area. I’m very curious if any jkOnTheRun readers are aware of laws in their area that make it illegal to use someone’s WiFi. If so, drop a comment with your general location and understanding of the law.


Charley Lambert

I have been having quite a problem with this issue myself … here in Central Virginia we have local cops that have nothing to do but chase me around all night from one hot spot to another, and the only law I have been breaking would be trespassing … there is no law I can find, yet, that forbids the use of wifi unsecured systems … yet here in Appomattox, {oops} … the local law enforcement has made it their mission to keep me from driving 23 miles into town to find a hot spot and do my stuff over the net via several unsecured wifi systems … aas a disabled AmVet, I use the net for various reasons , not excluding online gaming, and sitting in a parked van using my laptop seems to be a problem for John-Law in these parts ….


hmmm, Same re PA. According to an above post, it’s illegal to access anything on anothers computer, and the RIAA makes it a practice to give lists of files it accessed on said computers to the judge.


So, given the Massachusetts law quoted above, why aren’t the folks entering other peoples computer systems on behalf of the RIAA sitting in jail? They have more money than the guy in the car???

Yolanda Villa

My sister and I recently obtained membership at a small lake town library located near her cottage, specifically to be able to access the free wireless offered to library members. The librarian made it a point to tell us that it could be used, and is in fact often used with lawn chairs and all, from the parking lot when the library is closed. There is even an outdoor outlet apparently there for the use of after-hours internet access seekers. Big difference in “hospitality” from that other library that normally shuts down it’s router after hours!


In PA it’s not a crime to go through someone’s open network. It IS a crime to touch anything on that network. So I could use my neighbor’s network to access the internet, as long as it’s open, but if accessed anything on any of his computers, I’d be committing a crime. It strikes me as fairly reasonable.

Or so it went the last time I bothered to look.

Mike Moore

This is a novel idea to me. The story about someone being arrested for using the public library wifi after hours is particularly curious.

Walking into someone’s house without invitation is inappropriate, and illegal, because it is some one else’s physical space that you are intruding into.

Also, the idea of hacking to get by the password on a protected site seems akin to picking the lock on a door and is wrong.

Sitting in a Starbucks or airport restaurant for hours, not buying anything, especially if others are waiting for tables, is arguably defrauding the business the opportunity to generate income.

Dave Zack’s point about decreasing available bandwidth makes sense if you’re talking about a significant, perhaps commercial use of someone’s available network.

Does the cost to a businesses or individual for their wifi access vary according to the traffic on the network?

If the cost to Starbucks to maintain their WiFi access is not altered or their business thwarted by some one accessing it down the street on a park bench I question the rationale for such a law.

If I stand in the shade of the awning in front of a Starbucks on a hot day while waiting on a bus, am I stealing the comfort of their property? If I stand near the window at night to read something in the light coming out am I taking unlawful benefit from their paying their electric bill? If a business in an enclosed mall has a layout that includes many living plants, am I usurping their addition of oxygen to the environment if I stand outside and “window shop” for too long?

It seems strange that my email is not considered private, but that the unprotected WiFi network I send it on is.

Can you steal something that evidence of the theft can’t be measured?

In the Old Testament there are regulations that permit “gleaning”. When the fields were harvested, it was wrong for the field’s owner to be overly obsessive about “getting every last kernel of grain”, and what was left on the ground was to be freely available for anyone to pick up to use (perhaps limited by what they could individually carry, not sure).

Restaurants are part of the “hospitality industry”, are they not? I suppose a private restaurant has the right of asking me to unplug my laptop while I am eating. I think I would exercise my right to ask for my remaining food to be put into a “take out box” and inform the restaurant manager that I was offended by their lack of hospitality and would never impose my business on them again. If they asked for an extra “tip” to defray costs I would think it odd but would contribute.

(If they were concerned a table was being taken up for an undue amount of time while other customers were waiting I can understand that, but that’s a separate issue.)

Don't Panic!

Inserting spyware on computers is a crime in Massachusetts. Go figure…

Don't Panic!

Here’s the law in Massachusetts;



Chapter 266: Section 120F. Unauthorized access to computer system; penalties

Section 120F. Whoever, without authorization, knowingly accesses a computer system by any means, or after gaining access to a computer system by any means knows that such access is not authorized and fails to terminate such access, shall be punished by imprisonment in the house of correction for not more than thirty days or by a fine of not more than one thousand dollars, or both.

The requirement of a password or other authentication to gain access shall constitute notice that access is limited to authorized users.”

So to me it is clear that in Massachusetts at least accessing unsecured wirelesas networks is not a crime.

Dave Zack

Sixftunda –

Are you sure using the McD’s restroom is legal if you aren’t a customer? Really sure, not just assuming it’s ok because you’ve never heard of anyone being arrested? Sure that the same law applies in all states and countries? Somehow I’m guessing that even thnough at some level you know that the restrooms are there for paying customers you’d change your arguments if you were surprised with a felony arrest for using one.

The laws that ae being applied to these cases were originally written to protect against malicious “hacking” activity, but are unfortunately vague enough to be used to prosecute a wider scope of activity. I’m not saying there shouldn’t be any laws against unauthorized use of open wireless networks, I’m saying that we need laws which are written specifically to address the issue and punishments that are more in line with the crime. We also need more education that this is illegal so people understand that it isn’t ok.

I have this crazy idea that laws and lawmakers are supposed to serve the public, not provide a way to trip them up just because they haven’t spent weeks reading through all of the legal mumbo-jumbo for every location they ever visit.

James Kendrick

I liken it to the situation that could happen if I leave my front door wide open. Is it still trespassing for my neighbor (or anyone really) to walk into my house uninvited? Probably so.

Corrupted Mind

I think there is a bit of a tension here between what internet users feel should be the law and what legislators have decided the law to be. The impetus behind the UK law has and always will be closed networks facilitate better cyber-crime detection and prevention rates. The nightmare scenario being a peadophille web-ring operating on Mrs Jones’ open wifi network without her knowledge. Internet users have always look at the differently. My broadband is always on, if I am using it then I want the very best performance available from my isp, but if I’m asleep or not using my full bandwidth then I really don’t care who is using my spare capacity. But equally, I would be terrified at the thought of a hacker intercepting my online banking details, controlling my PC to send spam or commit a crime using my ip address. Its a difficult circle to square.


Personally I can’t believe that he didn’t realize he wasn’t doing something wrong on some level if he wouldn’t even go inside. He probably knew he would be asked to leave if he just sat there and didn’t buy anything, even if he was unaware of the law.
Does using the McD’s bathroom cost them more, I would say yes. the difference….it’s legal!
Unfortunately being ignorant of a law does not guarantee you won’t get punished for it if you break it. We all get used as an example at least once in life, it costs some of us more than others. If you don’t like it, call your legislator or don’t break the law.

Dave Zack

The problem with your analogy is that everyone understands that it isn’t ok to steal a car or just walk into someone’s house. Most people don’t realize that using an unsecured wireless network to check their email is a felony offense in some states.

Laws that exist but are rarely understood even by the people enforcing them open up the door for abuse by officers who want to “bust” someone but have to go back and do research to find something to charge them with. I’d agree with a case of some guy illegally downloading movies or trying to hack a server and using his neighbor’s network so he didn’t get caught. But a guy using the “free” wireless at the local coffe shop from the parking lot? There is a clear difference in intent there.

Lastly, I question the arguement that by using an open network at a coffe shop/restaurant/whatever you are “taking something”. You didn’t take property, so the best argument is that you reduced the available bandwidth temporarily. So I guess you’ve never stopped at a McDonald’s just to use the restroom? Should that be a felony offense? You temporarily impacted the services available to paying customers, so the result is the same. In fact, you could argue that it is more of an impact – more people use the restroom than the wireless network, and you consumed physical products (water, hand towels, toilet paper) which represent a direct cost to the company.


“And in that case, all it takes is one cop who doesn’t like the jacket I’m wearing or the way I lace my sneakers to notice the PC in my hand and decide to investigate and then enforce an outdated law he doesn’t even completely understand.”

Yeah my computer picks up open networks but I don’t connect to them. If a cop doesn’t like what you’re wearing then I guess you shouldn’t break the law. You are taking something someone else paid for. Is it smart to leave your network open….not really, but people in my town still leave their keys in their car or their house unlocked,not smart either and it still doesn’t give anyone the right to drive their car or go into their house.

Dave Zack

In purely technical terms? I would guess that the answer is “yes” on the wireless, and “good question” on the electricity. If you’re in the Starbucks then you are considered a customer and then I guess it would depend on whether or not they consider electricity to be a service they offer to their customers. I’ve had airport restaurants make me unplug my laptop when I tried charging up while I ate, so I guess it’s possible that it could be considered theft of services if it wasn’t expressly allowed.

If attaching to any available open network is illegal, then why does virtually every OS and wireless NIC driver allow it? If I turn that option on and my computer attaches to an available network, am I breaking the law even if I’m not actively accessing the network? The first thing your PC is going to do is try to get an IP address (assuming you don’t use a static IP), so you will always generate at least a small amount of traffic on any network you connect to. If this is illegal, then I have broken the law dozens or even hundreds of times a day in some cases. And in that case, all it takes is one cop who doesn’t like the jacket I’m wearing or the way I lace my sneakers to notice the PC in my hand and decide to investigate and then enforce an outdated law he doesn’t even completely understand.

Kevin C. Tofel

Some interesting and informative commentary here. Based on what I’ve read, let me pose another similar situation for discussion and opinion. When I sit in the Starbucks at the King of Prussia mall, the Apple store is two stores down. I can pull in their WiFi even though I’m not in their store; it’s < 40' away. Am I breaking the law? Is it even worse if I plug in my UMPC to the readily available and out-in-the-open electrical outlet next to my table in the Starbucks? Am I now breaking two laws?

Dave Zack

My point was that neither the store owner, the offender, or even the officer knew that a law was being broken. $400 and 40 hours seems excessive and should worry anyone who has ever “borrowed” an open wireless network.

This was a felony crime with a max punishment of five years inprisonment and a $5000 fine. $70/mo for unlimited data through AT&T doesn’t sound so bad if this is the alternative.

Mel Buckpitt

I know the law is the law and that people should not steal but….In todays world to leave a wi-fi network open is negligent. Unless you want people to piggy-back onto your system you just dont leave it open.


In the US its called “Theft of Services” and the consumer doesn’t have to be the one pressing the charges, the up stream ISP can do it (like Comcast).

Dave Zack

What bothers me the most about the Michigan arrest is that the store owner never made a complaint or even knew that this was illegal – the local police chief noticed the man sitting there in his car every day and asked what he was doing, and then went to find out if there was a law he could nail the guy with. The direct quote is: “I had a feeling a law was being broken, but I didn’t know exactly what.” And rather than just let the guy know that he was breaking a law even the police didn’t know about, he decided to charge the guy and punish him for it.


Hi jk,it’s exactly the samething in french. It’s forbiden to usea wifi connection without his autorisation. Sorry for my english you know french are not so good in other language and my Q1 hate to write in engliqh. lol of course.

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