Can Retailers Who Provide Free WiFi Get Freeloaders Arrested?

from the questions-questions dept

The rise of WiFi has certainly brought out some interesting and challenging legal questions over the past few years. There’s the question of whether or not you’re liable if someone does something illegal on your WiFi and (the big one) whether or not it’s illegal to use someone else’s WiFi. Of course, most of these questions focus on homeowners who have setup WiFi for their own convenience at home. The questions can get even trickier when you move to a retail setting, where WiFi is designated for customers. While it comes as part of a typical local reporter fear mongering about WiFi article, the opening of this article includes the story of a man arrested for freeloading on a coffee shop’s free WiFi from their parking lot. In true fear mongering fashion, the article mentions that the guy is a convicted sex offender — though the reporter has no idea if that’s even relevant to the wireless angle. However, it does raise some legal questions.

If the coffee shop was broadcasting the WiFi in the open, inviting customers to use it, can they then have someone else arrested for using it? It’s not a case where it’s just some homeowner who doesn’t know any better and doesn’t secure his network. This network is specifically configured to be open for people to use. In this case, the guy was sitting in his truck in the parking lot using the WiFi for 3 months — so you could make a case for trespassing once they asked him to leave, but he was charged with theft of services. Also, what if he accessed the network from the road, rather than the private property of the parking lot? Is it still trespassing, even though they broadcast out their welcoming signal that far? Finally, there certainly are technical means available to the coffee shop to prevent such freeloaders — whether it’s giving out codes to customers to simply having a splash page popup when you first get on the network, notifying users that you may only use the network if you’re a paying customer. Does the fact that the shop chose not to employ those methods weaken the case against the freeloader? It seems that police and the courts in Vancouver, Washington will now get to tackle at least a few of those questions.

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Comments on “Can Retailers Who Provide Free WiFi Get Freeloaders Arrested?”

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renderingsanity says:

a little math...some directional antenna...problem

Maybe they should use some directional antennas and geometry to triangulate the position of a computer attempting to log in. Along with giving a code out on the reciept to gain access, only computers within the building can access the net.

Though I find it very unsettling that you can arrest someone so easily for using a service you offered them… At least secure your damn system first.

Anonymous Coward says:

General wi-fi ignorance

Wi-fi, or 802.11, has moved into the main stream and become “commoditized”. Regarding using directional antennas – it was probably installed by the owner’s friend, or kid. Small Office/Home Office (SOHO) wireless is basically plug and play – which is great for non-technical people.

But it does introduce risk – being hacked/captured or freeloaded.

There’s a question about legaility of using someone’s connection which is “broadcast” out into the open – but I have the problem of NOT using my neighbors. Although I’m a Network Engineer, my new IBM/Lenovo T43 has built in wireless with the … shall I say “worthless” (to be polite) Windows Zero Config for wireless. So, I have some basic precautions on my Linksys – such as a changed SSID that I’m not broadcasting – but my Windows insists on connecting me to either one of my neighbors on both sides of me before my own wireless.

So, three houses, three wireless. None of use encryption. None of use MAC filtering. If I weren’t techncial, I wouldn’t even know which AP I’m associated with (thanks again Windows) – I would just wonder why it’s so dang slow.

So, if I accidentally connect to my neighbors and then fire up bit torrent or something like that and start going crazy with music sharing – and the RIAA comes after my neighbor, is it their fault? Maybe fore being ignorant. But I would suggest the manufacturers are just as much to blame – for making it too easy for them to install a Wireless Access Point without knowing what they’re doing.

randolei 4.678214345465445 says:

Re: General wi-fi ignorance

(can never remeber my dang name, anybody who wants to sue this for reasons of their own go ahead)

Anyway Good point. I have several neighbors that have linksys routers and for some odd and da** annoying reason I can’t access my wireless network with a password set on it. I’ve called both llinksys and the company that sells the USB wireless trash. Neither could give me a decent solution. Guess it shows you that it gets difficult to secure your network unless everything’s the same company. (but heck the USB thing was 10 bucks. where the heck are you going to get something for ten bucks today?)

GW says:

Re: Re: General wi-fi ignorance

i believe your problem is that windows, at least before XP SP2, the wireless connection thing will perfer to connect to unsecure signals, so if you are in range of a unsecure signal, and that is in your auto connect thing, and you manually try to connect to a protected signal, it will be connected to that for a few mins, then revert to the unsecure one

i believe they might have fixed it with SP2 some, but its best to know exactaly what SSIDs you have in your allowed wireless networks thing (in the advanced setup of the wireless connection)

teKuru says:

Re: General wi-fi ignorance

I find it hard to believe that you are a “Network Engineer” and yet you can’t figure out that Windows shows you what SSID you are connected to when you hover over the network icon in the task bar. Have that disabled? Then open the network connections control panel, the wireless card is right there, all ready to tell you where it is connected.

Of all the computers I have setup with wireless cards, none of them have automatically connected to _anything_ without me telling it to. So you have “linksys” saved as an auto connect profile for wireless, and your neighbors is called “linksys”. Yeah, you might have connected to his, but why is this Microsoft/Windows’ fault? To me, _that_ is ignorance.

Try opening up the advanced wireless configuration page and take a look at how to make wireless networks “on demand”. Also, you’ll find the option that says “only connect to preferred wireless networks”.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: General wi-fi ignorance

Yeah, I found that the other day. My point in griping about Windows Zero Config is that the utilities provided with other NICs (not built in) – say a nice Orinoco or Cisco NIC is that they are much more full featured.

Also, I did have it set to connect to “Wireless” and “Anything” so it will pick up AP’s and when I am travelling through airports, starbucks, etc.

So rather than ding my skills, or lack thereof, how about my point that most NON-technical people won’t know where they’re connected to – especially if they didn’t set up their own AP. Most technically challenged users I deal with certainly wouldn’t know how to go into their NIC config – perhaps you have better educated users you’ve dealt with.

ebrke says:

Re: Re: General wi-fi ignorance

Thanks for an informative post. I don’t use wi-fi, but I was talking to a friend who also claimed that he had no control over what AP he connected to and frequently found himself using wi-fi from a hotel across the street. I found it hard to believe there was not a way to remedy this, but since I don’t use it myself I could not say much.

bubba says:

Re: IS illegal to intercept satellite TV?

Difference, of course, is that the satellite signal is encrypted and you would have to decrypt it in order to view it. This constitutes theft because you would have to knowingly defeat the supplier’s means to allow only paying customers to view the programming. In this case, an open Wi-Fi node with an open invitation to use it…And who’s to say he’s not a customer? Maybe he did buy a coffee there, just not every time he was in the parking lot.

Craig Blackburn says:

Re: IS illegal to intercept satellite TV?

Good point,

But to recieve a satelite signal you need a reciever made just for one service provider and a card with a computer chip on it registered with the provider. The provider has gone to great length to protect his signal. You would have to go to a great length to intercept that. The coffee shop did not require a password.

William Frantz (user link) says:

Re: IS illegal to intercept satellite TV?

Most satellite TV (like DishNetwork and DirecTV) is encrypted. You would have to decrypt the signal and yes, that would be illegal according to the DMCA and probably a few other laws.

However, some satellite signals are not encrypted and yes, you can tune into them for free just like your local broadcast television. The courts have long up-held that.

There is a grey area around listening to transmissions “not intended for you” even if they are un-encrypted. For example, the courts have said tuning into a satellite is fine, but listening in on a cell phone conversation (old, unencrypted, 800 Mhz AMPS system) is illegal.

Thomas says:

The Joys of Fear-Mongering

Did anyone else see this paragraph in the news article

‘A computer expert told KATU News there is no way to know if someone is using your wireless connection without permission.’ ?

Has this expert never logged into a router to look at the DHCP table?

Plus most manufacturers provide the ability to look at the access log, so if you have 2 computers in your house, and see more than 2 ip addresses in the outgoing log, seems pretty obvious you have an extra user.

bubba (profile) says:

Re: The Joys of Fear-Mongering

Well, obviously that guy is no expert. Not only can you see the ip address assigned to the connecting computer (if you are using DHCP) but you can also see the MAC address, time lease was started and all kinds of information. You just need to know where to turn logging on in your router, and most log this info without you having to do anything. A suggestion to keep your WiFi at home more secure. Don’t broadcast the SSID, don’t use DHCP (inconvenient if using a laptop at work and at home), use MAC filtering allowing only your hardware to connect, CHANGE DEFAULT SETTINGS (if your router is from the factory, change it to for example), change the password, ENABLE ENCRYPTION. Now, not only would an intruder have to guess your SSID and your network address, he would also have to spoof your MAC address. While not impossibe to hack, you’ve certainly eliminated the average freeloader from attaching to your WiFi node.

Louisb says:

Re: Re: The Joys of Fear-Mongering

SSID hidding doesn’t work, the SSID is included in all packets, MAC filtering doesn’t work, it’s too easy to spoof from any computers, DHCP doesn’t work eather as it’s included in all packets so anyone with a sniffer program can see it an assing their own computer with it. Same thing with changing the IP setting. The only thing that does work is encryption with WPA using a secure password. WEP can be broken in just a few minutes.

DittoBox (user link) says:

Re: The Joys of Fear-Mongering

I live just north Vancouver, WA. All we get for local TV/news is Oregon stations. Oregon sucks. So does their TV. KATU can’t even get HDTV right. They’re really sensationalistic and crap too. Far worse than any of the horrible national/international cable news providers.

Aside from that they rarely ever report on anything in southwest Washington, even though Vancouver is the closest city to Portland (where they’re all based).

Most anything they report on when it comes to computers, myspace, stupid parents it’s always that evil computer’s fault.

Oh, and like most other news outlets their website sucks complete and total donkeys. They have these retarded commercials for local companies with “the yellow box”. So rather than listing the company’s website in the commercial, they have you go to KATU’s site and type in some stupid phrase into “the yellow box”. Why would anyone want to go that far out of their way to get information on a company? What and entirely unprofessional way of doing things.

I swear, they’re all idiots.

ET says:

In the case of this article, I don’t believe the guy in his truck was doing anything wrong. If the coffee shop would have it posted clearly that their “free” wi-fi is only for paying customers (and therefore not 100% free), they might have somewhat of a case…

So is it illegal to use someone else’s home wi-fi? I do believe so. Unless they have it advertised that their house is a free wi-fi spot, no can do.

But if you do go onto someone else’s wi-fi and so something illegal, is it the wi-fi owner’s fault? Well, is it a car owner’s fault if his car gets stolen (because he did not lock it) and it is used as the getaway vehicle in a crime?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Um, I would say no, it’s not the car owners fault. As a car owner, one would have the right to lock it or not – doesn’t change the fact that to get in and steal a car is a crime.

Kind of a strange analogy …

… with wi-fi, it’s frequently isntalled and used by people who don’t know how it works, or the basics of making it more secure.

Its purposefully UNREGULATED by the FCC. This is EXACTLY why they regulate the majority of the radio frequencies – to control ignorant, uneducated use.

Anonymous Coward says:

If someone’s broadcasting a signal, it should be legal for anyone within range to use it. Don’t want other people using your WiFi? Secure it – the features are there to do this, so it’s not like you’re stuck with an open signal. Don’t see why anyone would care, unless something illegal’s going on – but that’s a whole new issue.

If the guy was sitting in the parking lot off and on for 3 months I believe the laws on trespassing and loitering cover that already. He was already warned by the cops, so I think there’s every right to prosecute him now – I can’t say I agree with any prosecution for the WiFi use, but for trespassing, after being asked to leave, most certainly.

The One that Knows it ALL says:

Re: Re:

Actually they arrested him for Theft of Services but in regards to Trespassing they never warned him. Not the cops nor the Coffee shop I know this because I live in Vancouver, WA where it happened and there was a big article about it in the Columbian Newspaper. So more then likely he will never be charged with it even after the Prosecution drops the Theft of Services as its clearly not no Theft of Service as its FREE as the Coffee Shop says and its a wide open Connection.

And to the other person who made a comment about this and DirecTV.

1) DirecTV is clearly a paid service so gaining access to it without paying is clearly illegal and would be theft of services.

2) Obtaining Free access to a WiFi that clearly says Free isn’t illegal and would not be theft of services.

So the two are non-comparable.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

I think the kep point in the Coffee Shop – the Wi-Fi is free for CUSTOMERS. If the guy is sitting in the parking lot using it, that’s theft of services. If he had first gone and bought a coffee, that makes him a customer and he’s using something that he’s freely entitled to, as a customer.

Jeff (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Perhaps this guy is a regular. Does it really matter if he uses the wifi before or after he goes into the shop as long as he goes back? What’s the legal window of usage? Is it legal if he last paid for coffee 20 seconds ago, 20 hours ago, 20 days ago? 20 seconds from now?

I think it could well be argued that the point of free networks is to entice customers to become active patrons of their store. Keep in mind the retail view that shoppers are customers in a real sense, even if they have not bought anything.

Truth is providers of free products/services provide them as a way to ENTICE someone to make use of their paid products/services.

Forget wifi a moment and think of a simple free service most coffeeshops provide. Restrooms.

Do they mind if I use the restroom before or after I get my coffee? Heck I might even go in there twice if I’m there a while — once to wash my hands before I order and another time before I leave to “output” part of what I just drank as “input”.

And god forbid sometimes I have gone into a restraurant or coffee shop and USED THEIR RESTROOM WITHOUT BUYING ANYTHING.

Hide your shock. It’s OK.

When the restaurant manager scolded me on my way out and told me the restrooms were for paying customers, he got a little shock of his own.

I told him, “Um, I was GOING to be a paying customer until I saw your restroom had cr** all over it, smelled like a pit-toilet outhouse and the sink had no soap and no paper towels.

“There’s a little sign in there, ‘Employees must wash hands before returning to work.’ but that’s exactly what’s so disturbing. I want to vomit at the thought that the guy who would be making my sandwich had to wash his hands in THERE. And you really expect me to place an ORDER FOR FOOD before I leave? GET REAL.”

So there’s a good case of a free service which was using a convenience as an enticement, but it ended up being a deterrent toward my patronage. True, there is a direct correlation there between cleanliness of the restroom vs. sanitation in the product I would be buying.

But who’s to say that shouldn’t be the same for a coffeeshop? Perhaps the enticement there is on the verge of working. I want to go pay for a coffee while I do some work over the Internet for free. But before I go to the trouble of going into the shop, I see whether or not my network card is working before I go in. Or maybe I can’t remember what type of a wifi this is — is it a paid one or a free one. If it’s not truly free wifi but instead like a pay-required T-mobile hotspot, then perhaps I’ll choose not to go in and drive on down the street. I might even try and USE the free connection for a moment quickly to see if it’s worth me carrying my stuff into the shop or not.

It’s simple, and others have made the point well elsewhere above. If you’re going to run a “free” wifi network as a service to anyone, or if you’re going to run any type of unsecured wifi network, you need to be savvy enough to be aware of the technical issues involved in setting up such a point and taking steps to secure it against unwanted access.

If you want an analogy to use, consider homeowners who live along a creek. On the other side of the creek is a woods that the neighborhood kids play in. The kids all figure their own way across til one day one of the parents decides it would be safer to build a nice little bridge. Some of the other neighborhood kids start using the bridge. The bridge builder has no fence around his property and the bridge has no gate or other way to secure who uses the bridge. But the yard and the bridge still belong to the bridge builder. Anyone who goes across their can be charged with tresspassing.


The bridge-builder continues to allow the neighborhood kids to make use of his property (the yard and the bridge) for years and years. Then it’s possible, courts have ruled, if you don’t enforce your property rights, you are silently giving permission. Classic cases involve kids or dogs who always cut through yards to get from the street to a school behind the property or whatever. What happens is that unless you stand by your rights, you lose them.

This could also be the case with free wifi, were it not for one simple thing. The wifi networks use the purposely unregulated public airwaves.

To me it matters very little whether a business owner enticed someone to their property with a free service or with a paid product. The point is, they invite the general public to make use of their parking spaces and welcome the general public onto their property.

For business owners who insist on offering free and/or unsecured wifi access, it would make infinitely more sense to address the concern as a property rights issue rather than on technical merits. If a guy is sitting outside in his car for six hours while using the cafe’s wifi, then the cafe owner should ask him to move his car so that the parking space can be used for paid customers. Let the cafe owner post signs at the parking lot entrance saying there’s a two-hour parking limit; violator will be towed. If the cafe doesn’t have its own parking lot but is part of a strip mall, then they have to address things like that in cooperation with their landlord.

The legal issue of using wifi and not buying a coffee is not a technical issue. The legal issue of using the restroom and not buying a sandwich is not a plumbing issue.

Alpha Geeks (user link) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

What constitutes a customer? If he purchases a cup of coffee once a week, would you consider him a customer? How about daily, or even once a month? Is the use on the free wi-fi only for people who have purchased something and are still consuming it? What if I purchased a cup of coffee an hour ago, left the premesis and came back because I needed to use the internet. I sat in the parking lot and hopped on the wireless network to get driving directions. Is that wrong? Would I still be be considered a customer?

Also, the signage the coffee shop has regarding the free wi-fi must clearly state for customer use only. Almost all signs for free hi-speed wireless internet access that I have seen neglect to add the “for customer use only” portion to the sign. If the sign simply says “Free Hi-speed Wireless Internet” then they have not clearly defined that the use is limited to customers only.

If you go to a grocery store and sample all of the freebies they are handing out and then leave without purchasing anything, is that theft of services?

The offer of “Free Wireless” does not automatically imply for customers only. The reason a coffee shop or any other establishment offers the wi-fi for free is in the hopes of attracting additional customers. If you offer something for free, and get taken up on the offer without converting the person to a customer can you then sue them for theft of services? You made the offer. These are the questions that the legal community must answer.

Spyke Jhones says:

Illegal Acts

But if you do go onto someone else’s wi-fi and so something illegal, is it the wi-fi owner’s fault? Well, is it a car owner’s fault if his car gets stolen (because he did not lock it) and it is used as the getaway vehicle in a crime?

That’s an interesting point, and it will vary from country to country. I don’t think any jurisdiction in the United States would charge the vehicle owner, but military friends have told me that in some cities in Germany, the Polizei will ticket unlocked vehicles.

Can anyone from Europe comment on this?

ET says:

Re: Illegal Acts

I am from Europe… Belgium to be exact (Germany’s little neighbour to the west)

I can’t confirm your statement about the Polizei in Germany, but I know in Belgium they will not ticket unlocked vehicles. And even if they did, if the car gets stolen and used in a crime, the car owner is not considered an accomplice… so in my opinion, the owner of a wi-fi which was used -beyond the owner’s knowledge- for illegal activities, is not liable.

Rev. says:

Re: Illegal Acts

I believe the concept you are looking for is called criminal facilitation.

If I have a gun that I leave unsecured, and someone takes it without my permission, even though I was fully aware (or stupidly unaware) that the weapon could be taken and used to perform a criminal act, I have facilitated that criminal act.

And whether or not you are legally liable, there are a great many people out in the communities that “self police” unsecure sites, resulting in blacklists and connection refusals for that reason.

So whether or not the legal system gets you, eventually someone will.

Chuck Poole says:


The FCC set aside the ISM band for public use. There are no restrictions on what one can do in this space as long as you use FCC approved transmitters. There are no rules governing reception of signals on public bands. There are Federal and State laws that allow for Theft of service theories but I think in the end he will be exonerated. There are commercially available technologies that allow you to put up a gate and require a PIN number before you can surf. The more compelling argument is that these technologies are free. If you advertise a service, but don’t require the customer to accept a “Terms of service agreement” and you don’t provide a means to protect or regulate your service, then you have no case.

John Smith says:


Open is open.

While you cant walk into someone’s wide open front door, there is no law prohibiting you from listening to the XM Satellite radio transmission coming out of it from the sidewalk (if it’s up that loudly anyway).

Same principal. You might be charged with loitering, but not theft of service.

Now, if the person was doing something illegal, then something can/should be done. But theft of service on an unsecured network that is advertized as “free” is absurd.

As for blaming the owner of the WiFi if someone else performs an illegal act, that’s absurd as well.

If someone picks up my pencil from my desk and stabs someone in the eye, am I responsible? No, why should I be? “I” (no pun intended) didn’t do it, and I shouldn’t be responsible for the actions of others. Same applies to drugs, and just about anything else that has a legal purpose, but can be used for an illegal one (which is anything that can be used in any manner whatsoever).

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Open

Regarding, “If someone picks up my pencil from my desk and stabs someone in the eye, am I responsible? No, why should I be? “I” (no pun intended) didn’t do it, and I shouldn’t be responsible for the actions of others. Same applies to drugs, and just about anything else that has a legal purpose, but can be used for an illegal one (which is anything that can be used in any manner whatsoever).”

Take that pencil and replace it with a handgun. If someone picks it up and uses it to commit a crime, are you liable – legally, maybe. Civilly, damn skippy you are.

You might not get hit with a criminal prosecution, but you can count on the Civil law suit coming your way, and probably losing, in the US at least.

Professor HighBrow (user link) says:

Re: Re: Open

Take that pencil and replace it with a handgun. If someone picks it up and uses it to commit a crime, are you liable – legally, maybe. Civilly, damn skippy you are.

Ridiculous. If someone steals a handgun afrom the permitted owner nd uses it in a crime, the owner is NOT resbonsible. (Provided it was reported as stolen.)

I Agree with the pencil analalogy… If someone uses something [any tool: pencil, knife, computer, wifi, nuclear weapon] to commit a crime, it is the person that used it that is responsible.

If the network was purposely left open for the benifit of the customers in the vincity, then I would believe that the AP owner is not responsible, only the perpetrator of the crime.

Likewise, the AP owner is purposely allowing open access, so they cannot claim that anything has been “stolen” from them, either.

Should the responsibility be upon the actual person who committed the legal act? And what right does the “coffee shop (AP owner) have to claim theft of service? None.


–Prof HiB

Frank says:


All this is just another way for someone to make a little money. I believe that if you leave your wireless open for everyone to access you should expect to have freeloaders. Freeloaders are everywhere now if your offering samples of cheese hoping someone will buy your sandwich you should know that not everyone tasting your cheese is going to make a purchsase eventhough you paid good money for that cheese. You put yourself out there for the taking and you got taken, so suck it up and get some better security…

Sanguine Dream says:

And that is why I’m iffy on installing a wireless router in my home. Even though there is little chance of anyone piggybacking off my network (I live out in the country) I want to be able to properly protect my network so if something bad does happen I can at least prove that the offending user had to break through my protection if nothing else. I think the shop may lose out on this one becasue it was offering the wireless for free and was not actively protecting it or limiting it somehow.

Keep it Free says:

This is just the beginning, next we will have an a

It would be at least criminal negligence if the car was stolen by a kid because you left the keys in the car and the kid killed someone with it. Same is true about a child drowning in your pool because you left the pool gate open. But thats morbid and is beside the point.

Arrested for theft for hooking up to a “free” open commercial node, that is plain crazy. Slap on the wrist and a $150 fine like jaywalking if and only if the commercial node announces that net access is for paying customers only. If the unauthorized person is looking at child porn, then he goes to jail for that… and is fined.

Reverend Shaft says:

Signal interception and use

From my recollection of FCC rules and subsequent case law, any signal that passes through your property’s airspace (unencrypted, as Anonymous Coward mentions) is “trespassing” on your property, thus you are fully within your right to intercept the signal. (There are earmarked exceptions to this, such as cordless telephone conversations, which carry an expectation of privacy, but WiFi signals have no such exemption of which I’m aware.)

Similarly, the Supreme Court has found, in search and seizure rulings, that a person’s automobile functions as an extention of their property.

If you put the two together, the man using the coffee shop’s “advertised as free” signal was well within his rights to do so. If there were ANY form of encryption or security on the signal (even a rudimentary login screen), the situation would be completely different, because there would have been an expectation of private use.

Of course, I have no legal experience whatsoever, and my memory isn’t what it used to be, so I could be completely wrong… Unless there have been changes in FCC rules, I’m pretty sure this is accurate, though.

Bob Blahblah says:

1st thought

Another report from the Vancouver WA paper…

First thing I thought was they would get him in Trespass. The theft of services thing suprised me, how can you steal something that is free?

My point of view (I know we all have one), the guy was asked before to stop it, he should have… Did he break the law, I dont know, I dont believe he did. I bet it gets thrown out, however…

It sounds like he was a jerk during the process, and quite possibly the “Theft of Services” charge was an excuse to get ahold of his laptop and investigate hoping to turn up evidence of other crimes, along with impounding his pickup, again to investigate this crime with the hopes of turning up other evidence.

Whatever he said says:

Wi Fi nonsense

If the coffee shop was serious about enticing customers with wireless they could have secured it and given out access with a purchase, and still called it free wireless.

If this is really tossed out of court, then there should be some recourse for the person arrested — the wireless service is not contained within the business, and if the business isn’t paying lease on public property, then the business may be liable for providing a service on public property without license.

Okay, it was a parking lot, but the whole thing is pretty stupid.

If the coffee shop were to put out full cups of coffee on a table, in public, with a sign “free coffee” hanging from the adjacent shop, would it be illegal to take a cup?

Sounds to me like someone had too much coffee to drink and was looking for a fight (edgy idiot)!

Sean (profile) says:

Take responsibility

I leave my home connection open to people that want to use it and several of my friends know this if they want free access. I have blocked all of the ports on the wireless network other than ones needed to connect to the Internet so p2p programs run or any thing else. Only my MAC address has privileges on the wireless to use all ports.

If they do not want users to do things that are “illegal” or porn related then close the ports and install a net filtering program like they use at schools or the library.

Nomad91 says:


Looking at another article from today’s news about Deep linking it seems fairly clear by the following statement that the cafe owner has no leg to stand on.

“U.S. courts have found, repeatedly, that if you put something online in a free and open manner, there is absolutely nothing wrong with anyone linking to it — even if it hurts your business model.”

The cafe owner didn’t put anything online but he is offering something free to the public and therefore anyone who wants should have free reign to access it. Is the user liable for the cavalier business practices of the cafe owner? No. If the owner sets limits on the use of the service and the user breaks the rules that would be grounds for liable. When there is no clear ruling, police tend to make up their own minds as to what is lawful or not. In this case the police are dead wrong. They’re right about loitering but that’s just being petty.

Adam Zakreski says:

WiFi Hijacking

If my local starbucks tries to charge me with using their WiFi now and then, couldn’t I then countersue that they’re bombarding me with their unsolicited signal? What happens when the channel space becomes filled and signals start to interfere with eachother?

Is the same fate that befell amateur radio broadcasts going to happen to WiFi? Will we soon be forced to register our transmitters with the CRTC in order to ensure that we’re not interfering with registered commerical broadcasters?

Hopefully WiMax will render all this a moot point as larger areas become blanketed with connectivity rendering personal APs redundant.

zipdrivedaddy says:

brewed awakenings

what a complete and total waste of taxpayers money.the owner/mngr of said buis. is to inept/ignorant to control his product so he calls the police.once again the lawyers flourish.if i lived anywhere near this kaffee houz,i wouldn`t give them a minute of my time or spend a single dime in the establishment.tresspassing at best.and what took them so long to act?

Nathan (profile) says:

Knee-jerk reactions?

Um, if you read some of the articles covering the story, you can see that all of this speculation about wifi and free/open is mute.

He was “refusing repeated requests to leave.” The coffee shop is private property. If they say “Get out and no wifi for you” it doesn’t matter that it’s unlocked/open, you can’t enter their property or use their wifi. It’s just like the front door of the shop. If you’re asked to leave, even though they don’t have a bouncer there to throw you out, you have to leave and not come back. The “theft of service” is probably just the reporter spreading some FUD to get hits. Trespass is what he’d be charged with. The sex offender is also FUD the reporter is using to scare up some hits.

No story here, move along.

Nathan Werner (profile) says:

Re: Re: Knee-jerk reactions?

Possible, but here it’snot the case. I think it was on Slashdot (or other like places that discussed this) that someone linked to satellite imagery (google maybe?) of the coffee shop. It clearly had a private parking lot out front.

However, that leads me into my rant on the lack of public space in America anymore, but that’s another story.

PDL says:

"illegal" use of "free" WiFi services

This is clearly a case of theft of service. The legal matter has nothing to do with the potential accessability of the signal, nor with the character or criminal background of the person being sued. The question has to do with the terms of use of the WiFi service. The use is not “free” but “free to customers.” A customer is someone who transacts business with the owner of the establishment. If no such transaction occurs, the person is not a customer, so the WiFi use is forbidden. No hysteria. No technological angst. Just simple plain ol’ business jurisprudence (ain’t nothing new here).

Deuce says:

Re: "illegal" use of "free" WiFi services

If the sign says the wifi access is free without listing any conditions, then it is free. End of story. If they want it for customers only then they either have to specify something about that on the sign or they have to limit access either by encryption or setting up a password.

A personal wifi network at home does not advertise itself as free. They SHOULD set up some sort of security and I believe the instructions for my wifi network included instructions for that, but the average person setting up a network is not computer savvy and can often be described as computer illiterate. Their networks are protected by law the same as an unlocked front door is protected by law.

Craig Blackburn says:


Where does the accused’s space begin. If the coffee shop is transmitting a signal strong enough to travel into the parking lot and into this man’s vehicle, they are in his face. If the signal reached only to the door of the business, they wouldn’t be worried.

One article stated an employee called 911 to have to summon the police. This is clearly not a hostage situation. I hope the employee was reprirmanded for using an emergency line for his peeve with a customer. I also hope someone dying was not put on hold while the operator took this call.

Jack Follansbee says:

Trespassing/Theft of Services?? No, felony fraud.

The governing statute in the state of New Hampshire, where I live is:





Computer Crime

Section 638:17

Which states:

“A person is guilty of the computer crime of unauthorized access to a computer or computer network when, knowing that the person is not authorized to do so, he or she knowingly accesses or causes to be accessed any computer or computer network without authorization.”

The rest of the statute is harsher if you care to read it.

The list of affirmative defenses does not include “(s)he was too dumb or lazy to secure his/her network”

C (user link) says:

My WiFi is really free

I have a WGS54G wireless router on the outside of my firewall and 6mb connection. Help yourself. I have the spare bandwidth to help a traveler trying to book a hotel room or check email as I often do in suburban areas nationwide. My security vurlnerabilty is no different than any ISP. I have logs and a pic snarfer so no kiddie stuff please.

So there. Now you have to know the INTENT of the router owner to know if you are actually stealing, if he can’t figure out how to PW his not really “free” service, then he is to blame, and you’re to blame if you are looking for adult toys and pay too much

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