When associating is outlawed...

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A Florida man has been arrested and charged with a felony for using an open wireless AP [*]:
NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - Police have charged a Florida man with a third-degree felony charge, after he was arrested for accessing a St. Petersburg resident's wireless Internet network without permission.

According to the police, Benjamin Smith III was seen by Richard Dinon outside Dinon's home on the night of April 20, 2005, sitting in a parked SUV and using a laptop computer. When Dinon went outside to deposit his trash, Smith quickly closed the laptop and tried to hide it.

Dinon also stated that he later observed foreign icons on his home computer screen, and suspected that Smith, 41, may have been using his network. He called police and an officer confronted Smith at 11:30 p.m., two hours after the initial sighting.

"The arresting officer wasn't initially sure a violation took place," said George Kajtsa of the St. Petersburg Police Department. "He consulted our legal staff and they looked up the relevant statute."

The charge, unauthorized access to a computer network, applies to all varieties of computer network breaches, and gives prosecutors considerable leeway depending on the severity. It carries a potential sentence ranging from probation to 5 years in prison.

I don't understand the law of what constitutes unauthorized access very well, but I do know that it's extremely common for people to leave their APs open--either intentionally or out of ignorance--and that many people will simply use whatever open AP they happen to find. In addition, many operating systems will automatically associate with open APs, so it's not even clear that this is a voluntary act on the part of the user. MacOS X, for instance pops up a dialog box, but it's hard to imagine that most users understand what's going on. It would certainly be very easy to think you were connecting to an authorized AP when in fact you were connecting to someone else's open AP--it doesn't help that it's very common for people to leave the default SSID (e.g., "linksys"). All that, said, seeing as Mr. Smith was parked outside Mr. Dinon's home I think it's clear he knew what he was doing.

In any case, as a home user you need to be aware of the threat environment. Illegal or not, if you have an open AP you should expect that people will use your net connection. If you don't want that, close down your network. Even WEP--though insecure--is probably good enough for most purposes. Few ordinary users are going to bother to try to crack a WEP-secured network.

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In addition to WEP, reduce the signal strength of the router. My linksys, using the Sveasoft firmware, allows me to reduce thw power to a few milliwatts, which covers my house but not the street.

Reducing the signal strength isn't a very good security measure seeing as the current world record for two-way communication via a 802.11b WiFi link is 82 miles (~130 km) using off-the-shelf hardware (http://classes.weber.edu/wireless/).

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