The Club for Growth

Phillip Rodokanakis



Accidental Pirates

In a world of evolving technology, outdated laws could criminalize innocent acts like using a Wi-Fi network. Virginia needs to give its state code an overhaul.


“The Internet is a giant international network of intelligent, informed computer enthusiasts, by which I mean, ‘people without lives.’ We don't care. We have each other...” -- Dave Barry


While taking a short reprieve from politics after the hotly contested primary elections, I came across an article from InfoWorld. It reported the first recorded arrest of a man for “hopping on to a home Wi-Fi Network.”


For the less technically inclined amongst us, Wi-Fi (short for "wireless fidelity") is a term for certain types of wireless local area networks (WLAN). Many airports, hotels, and fast-food facilities now offer public access to Wi-Fi networks, commonly known as “hot spots.”


Wi-Fi networks are becoming very popular. When I fire up my laptop in the densely populated suburbs of Northern Virginia and allow my wireless software to scan for Wi-Fi networks, I can find several in any given neighborhood. Most of these home Wi-Fi networks are completely unsecured. Manufacturers of Wireless Access Points (WAP) usually ship their products with all security features disabled, making it easier to provide technical support to computer users who are not technically savvy. This policy makes life easier for WAP manufacturers, but leaves most consumers unprotected and potentially vulnerable.


According to InfoWorld, it seems that Benjamin Smith III, 40, was arrested on April 21 outside the St. Petersburg home of Richard Dinon and charged under a Florida law that prohibits unauthorized access to a computer or network. Dinon saw Smith sitting in a parked sport-utility vehicle in front of his house and wondered what he was doing there, then saw he was using a notebook computer. Ironically, Dinon wasn’t concerned about Smith accessing his home Wi-Fi network—the thought probably never entered his mind. But Dinon was concerned that Smith might be casing his home.


Dinon did what most responsible homeowners would do under such circumstances: He called the police. Smith eventually confessed to taking advantage of Dinon’s unsecured Wi-Fi network. There was no evidence that Smith had hacked into Dinon’s home network. Presumably, he just used it to establish an Internet connection to surf the Web or check his email. In the end, the police arrested Smith and confiscated his laptop.


With Wi-Fi networks and hotspots popping up all over the place, computer users may be unaware that they are logged into someone else’s Wi-Fi network. Because Wi-Fis operate on radio frequencies and these frequencies are susceptible to interference, Wi-Fi users may unwittingly lose the connection to their home networks. In such instances, their wireless connection software could scan the area for other Wi-Fi networks and automatically connect them to any other unsecured network. Thus, Wi-Fi owners may—without their knowledge—become Wi-Fi pirates.


That's a far cry from mobile computer users who scan neighborhoods looking for unsecured networks where they can connect to surf the internet, a practice referred to as “war driving.”


So, how would Virginia law treat these Wi-Fi pirates? Not very lovingly! Section 18.2-152.3 of the Virginia State code, defines Computer Fraud as the use of any computer or computer network without authority. Obviously, this statute was written long before anyone conceived of wireless networks. No provisions currently exist to cover the occasional use of someone else’s Wi-Fi network, even if the connection to this network was totally accidental or unintended.


This statute could chill the adoption of an emerging technology that may liberate us from being chained (i.e., wired) to our networks.


Will we see a day when the police give up their radar guns and start using radio triangulation techniques reminiscent of world War II when troops tracked down users of shortwave radios? It appears rather unlikely, but if someone can figure a tax-raising angle in all of this, all bets are off! After all, we now have the police using mobile license-plate scanners to identify tax scofflaws.


If Virginia wants to maintain its reputation as the Silicon Dominion, legislators had better start revamping the State Code taking into consideration new and emerging technologies. Otherwise, we stand to make criminals out innocent high-tech users who do not realize that they are violating some arcane statute.


-- July 11, 2005









Phillip Rodokanakis, a Certified Fraud Examiner, lives in Oak Hill. He is the managing partner of U.S. Data Forensics, LLC, a company specializing in Computer Forensics, Fraud Investigations, and Litigation Support. He is also the President of the Virginia Club for Growth.


He can be reached by e-mail at


Read his profile here.



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