Many people see piggybacking as a harmless way to get free WiFi. But it is against the law.
The latest arrest for illegally using a private WiFi broadband connection took place in August. A man was found using his laptop in the street and admitted to using unsecured broadband from an adjacent house - an act known as piggybacking. The man was bailed to return last month, the prosecution being run by the Metropolitan Police computer crime unit (MPCCU).
The first, and only, conviction for such an offence was handed down in 2005, resulting in a £500 fine, the confiscation of the perpetrator's laptop and a 12-month conditional discharge. Then, as at present, the maximum penalty was six months in jail and/or a fine of up to £5,000. Other recent arrests have led to cautions.
The latest arrest took place for an offence under section 125 of the Communications Act 2003, which states that "a person who (a) dishonestly obtains an electronic communication service, and (b) does so with intent to avoid payment of a charge applicable to the provision of that service, is guilty of an offence". The MPCCU will also be attempting to apply section 1 of the Computer Misuse Act 1990, which states that an offence will be committed where a person causes a computer to access a program knowing this access is unauthorised.
Any attempt to classify WiFi piggybacking as theft would appear to be challenging. Under section 1 of the Theft Act 1968, "a person is guilty of theft if he dishonestly appropriates property with the intention of permanently depriving the other of it". It would be difficult to argue that a WiFi "thief" intends to "permanently deprive" the subscriber of the connection.
Public opinion on whether piggybacking should be a criminal offence remains split, and it may be some time before even the technologically astute decide how much respect to give to these laws. Web loggers seem to agree that consistent abuse of an unsecured private WiFi connection is morally reprehensible, but that casual use by passing piggybackers should be allowed. However, the acts provide no such grey areas and the MPCCU appears determined to follow the letter of the law.
The existence of unsecured network connections means it is possible to accidentally jump on to someone else's connection or to mistake a private (illegal) connection for a public (legal) one. As the acts require an intention to commit the offences, a streetwise piggybacker could easily avoid prosecution by claiming that either of these possibilities applied to him.
One might ask why unsecured WiFi connections exist at all, and a lack of knowledge among consumers appears to be a factor in this. Some might also argue that those who make and supply PCs, laptops and WiFi services should be responsible for ensuring their customers' security. It could even be argued that the producers of laptops and software which automatically seek out the nearest WiFi connection are "aiding and abetting" the piggybackers.
Internet service providers have the most to lose when potential customers resort to piggybacking. Most ISPs will include a clause in their contract that the consumer is not to share their connection with neighbours. Those whose neighbours are piggybacking would technically be in breach of contract, but it seems unlikely that an ISP would take action unless there was clear evidence that the subscriber was actively inviting others to share the connection for payment.
Clearly this is an area of ongoing debate. While many people see piggybacking as a harmless activity, it is illegal. However, as more and more consumers wise-up to the risk of their computers being hacked, it is likely that unsecured WiFi connections will become less prevalent. This, along with the introduction of free access WiFi into some town centres and WiFi broadband access in cafes and coffee shops may mean that the issue may well go away without police intervention.
- Tamzin Matthew is a partner in law firm Blake Lapthorn Tarlo Lyons, and specialises in IT law. She can be contacted at Tamzin.Matthew@bllaw.co.uk or on 01865 254262.