Ruling on Wi-Fi Wiretapping

wifi lawsA controversial court decision could have serious implications for Wi-Fi wiretapping. Ars Technica reports that a district court judge in eastern Illinois has determined that the interception of unencrypted Wi-Fi traffic does not qualify as wiretapping. The decision contradicts a previous court ruling that penalized Google for collecting Wi-Fi data.

The judge’s decision basically declares unencrypted Wi-Fi data to be public information. He found that the Federal Wiretap Act does not prohibit the interception of this data. The act allows people to freely eavesdrop on devices that were designed to be intercepted, such as band radios. Based upon the low cost and ease of interception, the judge determined that unencrypted Wi-Fi fit into this category.

This court decision will prevent Wi-Fi eavesdroppers from being prosecuted under federal law. It will also eliminate the need for law enforcement personnel to obtain warrants before monitoring such communications. Generally, it frees businesses, government agencies and individuals to use this data for any legal purpose. It could become particularly useful for private investigators.

By eliminating any potential punishment for Wi-Fi eavesdropping, this ruling may further weaken the security of unencrypted networks. Many cafes and some homes use networks without password protection, and according to USA Today, the majority of public hot spots remain unsecured. This enables proprietors to easily supply wireless Internet service without providing passwords to customers.

Many Wi-Fi users lack knowledge about computer security, but the judge did not consider this to be relevant. Google Scholar indicates that unsecured Wi-Fi data includes the contents of file uploads, images and text-based communications. It can also reveal the websites that users visit and expose details on the wireless network’s configuration. Such data benefits identity thieves, hackers and other criminals.

The judge’s decision may convince some Americans to stop using or operating unsecured Wi-Fi systems. It could also alert people to the associated security risks. However, the impact may be limited; users with minimal Internet security knowledge will probably have the least exposure to this news. It remains important for computer-savvy individuals to further educate the public about Wi-Fi security hazards.

The ruling also holds importance for Innovatio IP, the plaintiff in this court case. The company will now be able to legally gather Wi-Fi data and use it against the defendants in court. Innovatio IP accuses various companies that use Wi-Fi of violating its patents. This could discourage businesses from offering unsecured wireless Internet service to the public.

Anyone can intercept unencrypted Wi-Fi data with a few hundred dollars’ worth of equipment. CNET warns that running a wireless router without password protection can raise the risk of hacking and allow the network to be utilized for criminal purposes. If someone uses a home or business Wi-Fi network to commit crimes, authorities may investigate the network’s operator.

This ruling should remind all Wi-Fi users to secure their home networks and avoid using public hot spots to transmit confidential data. To further enhance security, people can install software-based firewalls and use long passwords that are difficult to guess.

Additional Sources:

http://www.volokh.com/2012/09/06/district-court-rules-that-the-wiretap-act-does-not-prohibit-intercepting-unencrypted-wireless-communications/

http://www.techdirt.com/blog/wireless/articles/20120907/16331020314/judge-says-sniffing-unencrypted-wifi-networks-is-not-wiretapping.shtml

 

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