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Wireless Piggybackers Put on Notice

New California law encourages users to lock up WLANs, setting the stage for criminal action against hackers and piggybackers

We've all done it: You're using your laptop in a location without hotspot access. You want onto the Internet, so you start scanning for open wireless LANs. You find one and, regardless of who owns it, you piggyback a ride onto the Web.

Yesterday, the California legislature passed a law (AB 2415) that takes the first steps toward outlawing wireless network piggybacking, as well as hacking into wireless LANs. The bill, which was written by Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles), has been submitted to Gov. Schwarzenegger and is expected to be signed. It will go into effect in Jan. and will apply to devices manufactured after Oct. 1, 2007.

The law will require all manufacturers of wireless access products to put warning labels on their products that remind users to password-protect their WLANs before launching them. The warnings could take place as stickers on wireless routers, notes during installation, or an alert that requires buyers to take action before the device is used.

The new legislation stops short of outlawing wireless piggybacking or hacking, but it points out that a password-protected WLAN is protected under state and federal laws against unauthorized access of computers.

"There is disagreement as to whether it is legal for someone to use another person's WiFi connection to browse the Internet if the owner of the WiFi connection has not put a password on it," the proposed legislation observes. However, both Section 502 of the Calif. penal code and the Federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act "prohibit the intentional access to a computer without authorization."

In a nutshell, then, the law requires manufacturers to warn WLAN users of the potential for abuse, and to clearly explain to users how to password-protect them. If users take the requisite security steps, and if piggybackers or hackers then break into the WLAN, the interlopers could be subject to criminal prosecution.

The legislation quotes a December 2005 study from the National Cyber Security Alliance, which states that 26 percent of homes have a wireless network, but about 47 percent of those homes failed to encrypt their connection, "a safety precaution needed to protect wireless networks from outside intruders."

Manufacturers will get a lot of leeway in how they present the warnings, which might be anything from stickers plugged into wireless router ports to tags that would have to be read and removed before a wireless access point could be activated. Manufacturers are given an option to put the warning in their configuration software as well.

— Tim Wilson, Site Editor, Dark Reading

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