Is the Legislature about to Make Poaching Neighbors' Wi-Fi a Felony?

Wifi.jpeg
Sometimes, through a lack of foresight or general carelessness, the state legislature passes laws that, while well-intentioned, are so poorly worded as to criminalize things that the criminal justice system probably shouldn't concern itself. (See: felony penny theft).

The latest example could be Senator Dan Patrick's SB 249, which the Houston Republican introduced to help law enforcement crack down on cyber crime.

That's all well and good but, as Scott Henson opines this morning at Grits for Breakfast the measure's rather broad language -- anyone who accesses a "computer, computer network, or computer system" without the owner's consent in order to "obtain a benefit" can be charged with a state jail felony -- would effectively criminalize the use of neighbors' unprotected Wi-Fi.

"As far as I'm concerned, criminalizing a neighbor using my wi-fi is akin to criminalizing their reading by my porch light," Henson writes. "People can always restrict access if it bothers them. I don't think Sen. Patrick has fully thought through the unintended consequences of this legislation."

Luckily for Wi-Fi poachers, there is still time for the bill to be amended or, of course, killed outright. It's set to be considered Tuesday at the meeting of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, where we should get a better sense of its future.


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46 comments
roo_ster
roo_ster

Dude needs a lesson in basic networking.  If my neighbor blasts my residence with his unsecured 802.11 and a visiting friend's smart phone hops on he signal, my friend is in no way a criminal.


bmarvel
bmarvel topcommenter

Trying to figure out just who would be the victim of this "felony"and what is the exact nature of the crime this law is intended to punish?

Would it be the computer owner, whose Wi-Fi is being accessed? (We'll assume his data is safely protected.) Okay, what is it that is taken from him? A service? But if a service is being taken from him, he would somehow no longer have access to that service, or would have access to less of it. But that's manifestly not so. So is this theft of a tangible thing? Like if somebody plugged into my electric line or water pipes? The same argument stands: I don't have less Wi-Fi as a result of this taking.

The "victim" then, must be the Wi-Fi provider. But then there must be some financial loss to the provider -- it has to pump out more of this "stuff" to compensate for that what is being taken, therefore incurring greater costs. Again, manifestly untrue.

Perhaps we could argue that if the person accessing the Wi-Fi were prevented from doing so, that person would be forced to pay the provider for his own Wi-Fi service. But how do we know this? This is, in any event, only a hypothetical loss. Perhaps the Wi-Fi "thief" would choose some other provider's service. Perhaps he would choose not to have any Wi-Fi at all, or he would go to the library and log on. So who has lost what, here?

The analogy of the porch light seems apropos. My neighbor has powerful yard lights, which partly illuminate my yard, thereby dicouraging burglaries and so forth. Do I owe her for the partial use of her light?

In order for there to be a crime, there must be a victim who loses something. In order for there to be a theft, there must be something stolen, or at least diminished in value. Is my Wi-Fi of less value because someone else is usng it? (We have, at times, as many as four or five devices in our home using the same Wi-Fi. Our provider charges us the same fee, regardless.)

Obviously, I'm no legal scholar. I'm thinking somebody on this forum can put their own keen mind to this conundrum. But here's the bottom line, it seems to me: Our legal system is woefully unable to deal with the realities of advancing technology. Existing laws, many dating back to Anglo-Saxon times and before, are jerry-rigged to cope with conditions and realities that were never dreamed of, are scarcely understood even now. Laws are being improbably stretched and distorted beyond recognition to fit issues of patents and copyright, fair-use, plagiarism, theft of services, liability, privacy and God knows what new technologies will bring in their train. 

A lot of lawyers are making a lot of money and a lot of legislators are drawing up a lot of lawsn, and precious few of them have the vaguest idea what they're about or what the consequences of their activity are likely to be.   


ChrisDangerShow
ChrisDangerShow

Instead of focusing on making sure our school-aged kids are getting better funding and the poor having better access to medicaid related services, we get this type of nonsense. I tell ya, idiots like Patrick, John Carona and their brainless friends/leadership are making the Texas Statehouse look like a ship of fools

Montemalone
Montemalone topcommenter

So the gist is: Dan didn't put a password on his router cuz all that technology stuff is for pansies, and somebody accessed his probably non-password protected computer and found his stash of kinky porn. 

If these guys just believed in science and learned about it, they could keep their kinky shit private and wouldn't have to pass ridiculous laws that just screw things up even more.

ruddski
ruddski

Private-sector solution: Your wifi router will not work until you password-protect the signal.

Then you can only get imprisoned if the State determines that your password is too weak, but only for a few years.

bealotcoolerifyoudid
bealotcoolerifyoudid

The original law is poorly written.  Section b didn't have any mention of obtaining benefits, only intent to defraud or harm or alter, damage or delete property.  Section c interjects benefits obtained in conjunction with intent to defraud, harm, etc.  The solution should have been to remove obtaining benefits from section c, not add it to section b which expands the scope of the law.

Myrna.Minkoff-Katz
Myrna.Minkoff-Katz topcommenter

According to Section 33.02 of the Texas Penal Code, it is against the law for a person to access any computer or network without the effective consent of the owner. This is primarily an anti-hacking law, but it can also be applied to anyone connecting to a private wireless network without asking the person who owns the network. In most cases, this is a Class A misdemeanor under Texas law.

Due to the small amount of actual money involved in these cases, it is rare for wireless Internet theft to amount to more than a misdemeanor. The exception to this is if the Internet provider can prove that someone has gained more than $1,500 in avoided Internet subscription fees. In this case, it becomes a state jail felony under the theft of services statute. Such a case could be mounted against an individual who regularly leeches from multiple wireless networks.

Read more: Texas State Laws About Stealing Wireless Internet | eHow.com http://www.ehow.com/info_8281939_texas-laws-stealing-wireless-internet.html#ixzz2MxtL6Vq0

Myrna.Minkoff-Katz
Myrna.Minkoff-Katz topcommenter

Hey, Cheeseburger.  Make yourself useful and tell me how I can get rid of that "In Case You Missed It" slideover on this web page.  It's seriously annoying.

holmantx
holmantx topcommenter

That law will have to be tested.  An unsecured wi-fi is a public broadcast.

oakclifftownie
oakclifftownie

"As far as I'm concerned, criminalizing a neighbor using my wi-fi is akin to criminalizing their reading by my porch light. People can always restrict access if it bothers them. I don't think Sen. Patrick has fully thought through the unintended consequences this legislation."

And  what if he has fully thought through the unintended consequences this legislation. And that is what he is using this bill to achieve ?


cheeseburger
cheeseburger

Disregarding the overly broad  language, I don't understand the need for a "cyber crime" bill in the first place.  I can't think of any situations that are not currently covered by existing laws.  

Hulon_Pate
Hulon_Pate

People need to  make sure there own WIFI siginal requires a password and is secure. If your WIFI is open ended then the fault is your own. Also if they pass a law which seems very hard to enforce. People need to post a sign like they do for hand gun possessions or trespassing. How could police even prove usage with out taking peoples computers. 

cheeseburger
cheeseburger

It doesn't make sense to send people to prison for something like this.  It doesn't need to be a felony either.  That's retarded.  A big fine is just as effective a deterrent, and doesn't stick the taxpayers with the bill of supporting yet another inmate.  A person who is caught doing this gets a felony on their record (good bye gainful employment), they loose their current job to go do time, and the tax payers pay for the incarceration  and a lifetime of public support for a person who can no longer find a decent job.  No, I think a big punishing fine would do.  

muddystick
muddystick

Here's an example of why I say our legislature should only meet every four years.  Sending those "limited government" types to Austin every two years lets them concoct more restraints on and governmental interference in our lives.  And, of course, anything they dream up just has to be a felony offense because their mindset is always, "throw 'em in jail!"

WhiteWhale
WhiteWhale

The problem is that the owner is currently held liable for any illegal down loading done one their Wi-Fi.  If your neighbor downloads kiddy porn on your wi-fi either because you left it unsecured or they hacked it, you may get a nasty visit from the police.  Likewise the owner of the wi-fi may face civil penalties for illegally downloaded copyright material.

scottindallas
scottindallas topcommenter

don't 4G cell phones do exactly that? run off wifi networks? 

cheeseburger
cheeseburger

@Myrna.Minkoff-KatzYou can filter it out using Adblock Plus.  It's available for Chrome and Firefox, and I think IE as well.  In Chrome, I just clicked the "ABP" icon in by url bar, and clicked "create easy filter".  It then allowed me to select elements on the page that I wanted to filter out.    Piece of cake.

ruddski
ruddski

@Myrna.Minkoff-Katz 

That wonderful feature can make this site unusable on a phone, a major pain in the ass on a Kindle, And an annoyance on a desktop.

Posting a reply from an iphone works almost 20% of the time, though, that's cool.

observist
observist topcommenter

@oakclifftownie  He's probably working on behalf of ISPs to make sure that no one accesses the internet without them getting paid for it.

cheeseburger
cheeseburger

@Hulon_Pate It's very hard to prove it for anyone who knows what they are doing.  Any decent wifi thief knows how to change their MAC address, and having a MAC address at all to find means the wifi owner is keeping logs in the first place, which is unlikely.  The better wifi thief can get onto some password protected wifi networks by cloning the MAC of a user that's legitimately connected, obfuscating it even further.  Really, you are going to have to catch someone in the act which is going to be very rare.  

bealotcoolerifyoudid
bealotcoolerifyoudid

@cheeseburger It is a class B misdemeanor, it is only a state jail felony if the perpatrator has already been convicted of the crime twice or the computer/network/system is owned by the government

observist
observist topcommenter

@WhiteWhale  I don't think there's any liability for images that pass through your network connection.  I believe the liability comes with possession of the images.

alteredjustice
alteredjustice

@WhiteWhale This is talking about ANY use though. And many wireless devices automatically connect to open wi-fi. A person might not even know that they're connected to your wi-fi. What Scott Henson said above is accurate but falls a little short of what I would say. I would say it's like making it illegal to walk through a neighbor's light.

This is a no-brainer. Secure your wireless and you won't have a problem.

CitzenKim
CitzenKim

@scottindallas Totally different wireless technology.  Although within range of a WiFi hotspot, most cell phones can connect to that WiFi network just as any computer would.

observist
observist topcommenter

@scottindallas  No... the first Sprint/Clear 4G was a WiMax network, a variation of WiFi, but it has nothing to do with people's home wifi networks.

cheeseburger
cheeseburger

@observist @oakclifftownie Well, the "reading by my porch light" analogy is bad.  It would be more accurate to compare it to powering your own porch light by tapping into your neighbors electricity.  The ISPs do have an interest here, same as an electric company would.

cheeseburger
cheeseburger

@Myrna.Minkoff-Katz @cheeseburger So I used loose instead of lose.  It happens sometimes when typing fast.  I'm not giving up that adjective though.  It's perfectly descriptive of deficient mental capabilities, as is required to think prison time is the solution to a non-problem like this.

WhiteWhale
WhiteWhale

@observist @WhiteWhale No, unfortunately that is often not true.  If it tracked to your IP address you own it.  You have the the next to impossible burden of proving your absolute innocence.  That is why it is important that you do everything possible to secure your network

WhiteWhale
WhiteWhale

@alteredjustice @WhiteWhale I do secure my wireless but I am not under the naive delusion that it could not be hacked.  I agree the bill as it currently written is overly broad.  Unfortunately since the authorities are too lazy or incompetent to track actual perpetrators beyond basic IP addresses and the ISPs have signed up to be copyright cops, I can kind of see where this type of bill is coming from.     

observist
observist topcommenter

@Myrna.Minkoff-Katz@cheeseburger "Retarded" was originally a more polite term to replace "Idiot".  Over time it's come to be perceived as derogatory and the new polite term is "challenged".  Soon enough kids will start insulting other kids by calling them "challenged" and it too will become odious.   As long as there's a word used to describe people born with lower mental capacity, it will be used derogatorily, and no amount of scolding will prevent it.

Myrna.Minkoff-Katz
Myrna.Minkoff-Katz topcommenter

@cheeseburger I'm scolding you on your insistence upon using the odious word "retarded".  It's offensive to people who are challenged.

gritsforbreakfast1
gritsforbreakfast1

@Myrna.Minkoff-Katz @cheeseburger Not a "thief" if the subscriber intended to let them use it. Providing wi-fi access to visitors in one's home is common courtesy. I paid for it and there's no law that says I must restrict who can use it beyond inherent laws of physics limiting signal strength.

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