The Perils of Mobile Computing

Over the past few years, wireless networks have spread all over the place. Some cities and towns even provide free Internet access over public networks. Chances are high that unless you live in a very rural area, one or more of your neighbors has a home wireless network. Chances are also high that many of those neighboring wireless networks are wide open, and anybody can connect without the owner's permission. And, invariably, sooner or later somebody does just that.

With the proliferation of wireless networks comes the very attractive opportunity to use mobile computing in all sorts of ways. For example, many coffee shops offer free wireless access, as do libraries and restaurants. So if you're a telecommuter working on the road somewhere, or just want to check your email or do a little Web surfing without going back to your own network, you can use any number of public wireless networks.

A problem with the ease-of-use that open wireless networks offer is that invariably some people can't resist using an open wireless network even if it's not expressly made open for the public. That's where simple wardriving can become a criminal act. After all, the unauthorized use of a network is a crime in most places today. So if you discover a wireless network and decide to use it, you might be committing a crime.

Last week, a precedent for increased arrests began to develop in Florida. A man discovered that another man was sitting outside his house in a vehicle while using a laptop. The man of the house apparently had an open wireless network, and the man in the vehicle had connected to the wireless network without permission and was using it for what are at this time unknown purposes. Eventually, the homeowner informed the police, who subsequently arrested and charged the man in the vehicle. He now faces a criminal case.

The man's illegal use of someone else's network is puzzling. If I understand correctly, the incident took place in St. Petersburg, which is the fourth largest city in Florida with a population of nearly 250,000. Certainly, there must be many places that offer free public wireless network access, so why did the man choose to break into someone else's network? I don't know, but the incident does raise some interesting questions.

What if that man was using a computer provided by his company? Or what if he was checking email on his company's mail server? Would that then make the company liable for the man's actions? If nothing else, the incident points out that businesses that provide wireless devices to their employees should probably consider implementing policies that stipulate acceptable use of those devices. Without such policies, businesses are more open to potential legal problems if employees misuse company equipment.

If you're interested in the details of this story, then use your favorite news site search engine to look for the terms "wireless" and "Florida," and add the terms "Smith" and "Dinon" if you need to narrow the search results.

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