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July 25, 2005updated 19 Aug 2016 10:11am

Could You Be Banged Up for Wireless ‘Piggybacking’?

The case last week of a UK man who was found guilty of piggybacking on other people's wireless local area networks (WLANs) - so-called 'war driving' - has raised the question: could you fall foul of the law by accidentally connecting to a nearby

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The case last week of a UK man who was found guilty of piggybacking on other people’s wireless local area networks (WLANs)  – so-called ‘war driving’ – has raised the question: could you fall foul of the law by accidentally connecting to a nearby unsecured wireless network?

The police were alerted after a man was noticed loitering outside a building in a residential area with his laptop, apparently trying to gain access to other people’s broadband wireless networks. A jury at Isleworth court in London found Gregory Straszkiewicz, 24, guilty of dishonestly obtaining an electronic communications service and possessing equipment for fraudulent use of a communications service – namely his laptop.

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Many of us who connect to a home wireless network will be familiar with the fact that before you log on to your wireless network, you are often offered a list of available networks within range and asked which you would like to connect to. If people have given their wireless networks specific names, like ‘BobNet55’ or whatever, it is clear which is yours and which is not. Likewise if only one is unsecured, that is probably yours (assuming you haven’t secured your own, which you should).

But most wireless routers come configured with a generic name, like ‘Linksys’, which is the router manufacturer’s name. If people have for whatever reason left their network name as ‘Linksys’ – because they have not got around to it yet, never read the manual in the first place, or just can’t be bothered – there may be two or more networks called Linksys within range of your laptop, and you may not know which is your own. Neither might be secured.

So if you connect to the wrong ‘Linksys’, or accidentally connect to ‘BobNet55’, are you guilty of an offence and liable to a fine or even jail? It seems highly unlikely. Straszkiewicz was found guilty under sections 125 and 126 of the Communications Act 2003. Section 125 of that Act states that you are guilty of an offence if you:                        

(a) dishonestly obtain an electronic communications service, and

(b) do so with intent to avoid payment of a charge applicable to the provision of that service

If you are already paying for a wireless broadband connection of your own, it is surely unlikely that you would be found guilty of piggybacking "with intent to avoid payment of a charge applicable to the provision of that service".

Section 126 relates to the possession or supply of equipment for contravening section 125, but owning a wireless laptop or wireless-enabled PC is obviously not an issue unless you’ve used them to piggyback – again "with intent to avoid payment of a charge applicable to the provision of that service".

However, there are some common sense precautions to take to protect yourself and other wireless users: apart from anything else, you wouldn’t want to have to try and prove in court that your connection to someone else’s network was purely accidental, nor would you want to share a broadband connection with its rightful owner (apart from anything else, you’ll both get slower speeds).

* Change your wireless network name from the generic one it came with – you are less likely to connect to the wrong network, and others are less likely to mistake yours for theirs.

* Turn on secure encryption of your own wireless network – so others cannot accidentally connect to yours.

* If possible set your configuration to automatically connect to your own network and not search through all available networks.

Disclaimer: This article is not to be construed as legal advice. Legal advice must be tailored to the specific circumstances of each case. This information is not intended as legal advice and may not be used as legal advice. It should not be used to replace the advice of your own legal counsel.

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