This is a very curious topic that is still not properly defined, as each country has its own regulations surrounding it. In the U.S. there are no federal laws regarding so-called ‘piggybacking’, so each state applies its own regulations depending on each case.
There have been some cases of fines and arrests in the past, and not only in the U.S. either but elsewhere in the world too, illustrating just how big the question mark around this subject really is. Many of these were results of a pure lack of knowledge regarding what the law says about it and, to make matters even worse, public Wi-Fi and home networks fall into different categories depending on whether they are protected with passwords or the access to them is authorized or not.
Password Protections and Public Connections
In the U.S. the laws regarding piggybacking are applied by each state with several cases in the past that highlight the mess and unfamiliarity of this situation that still exists even now. For instance, in 2006 a man in Illinois admitted being guilty of stealing a nonprofit agency’s network from outside and was charged with a $250 fine.
One year later in Michigan, a man was sentenced to 40 hours of community service and a $400 fine for repeatedly accessing email from a car parked outside a cafe. Michigan has a law against “unauthorized use of computer access”, which can lead to charges including a five-year jail sentence and a $10,000 fine. Neither he nor the owner of the cafe knew he was infringing on any law.
In the same year in Alaska, a young man used a public library’s network from outside at night to access a gaming website. The police initially charged him with “theft of services” but the director of the library said he wasn’t¬ breaking any laws since the access to the network was public after all. He ultimately ended up not being charged.
It depends on the state as to how restrictive or permissive the laws are. In New York, for instance, the act falls into the latter by only considering piggybacking illegal when the network has been protected by a password. But usually, and not only in the U.S. but in other countries as well, the terms of service for many ISPs firmly prohibit the sharing of bandwidth with other users. This is the case in Canada and some European countries like Italy or the United Kingdom, for instance.
Legal vs Illegal
Many times the consequences of using an unauthorized Wi-Fi network are dictated by the actions of those that accessed the internet. For instance, in these previous cases none of the users did anything more serious than accessing the network without authorization, so the sentences were relatively light.
But if someone ‘steals’ a Wi-Fi connection with more harmful intentions, then the situation gains a whole other meaning with much more serious results, including arrests. One example of this came from Ohio when in 2012 a man was arrested for downloading child pornography using an unsecured Wi-Fi network.
However, in other countries like Japan, for instance, it’s not a crime to use someone else’s Wi-Fi without authorization, even if said network is protected by a password. The obtaining and use of Wi-Fi passwords without permission belongs to a different category than the unauthorized use of “wireless transmission secrets”, and only the latter is a crime.
This allows, for instance, people to get away with some crimes. For example, in April 2017 a man used his neighbors’ Wi-Fi to send emails infected with viruses, only later to gain access to banking details and transfer money to his account. His actions were not considered a crime because they landed within the category of password obtaining, allowing him to escape an eight-year sentence in jail.
So what conclusion can we take from all this? Well, for the U.S. at least, nothing. At least until the laws are changed to affect the situation on a national scale, every state will be free to create and apply its own regulations, according to each and every case.
Best VPN Services of 2018