Using Unsecured Wifi Networks Could Jeopardize Your Right to Privacy

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By now, you probably know that using unsecured Wifi networks is risky business that can lead to identity theft and credit fraud, just for starters. But odds are you don’t have a clue that failing to secure your home wireless network could jeopardize your Fourth Amendment rights. Those rights are critical for your personal privacy because they protect you from unreasonable government searches and seizures.

Are you wondering what securing your Wifi network could possibly have to do with the Bill of Rights? After all, law enforcement can’t just barge into your home and search your computer just because your home Wifi network isn’t secure, right? Well, not quite.

What’s Private and What’s Not on Unsecured Wifi Networks

The trouble is, in the Internet Age, the definition of what’s private and what’s not is changing so fast it’s hard to keep up. In 2010, a federal court decision made that plain in the first case involving a reasonable expectation of privacy in a home wireless network. In United States v. Ahrndt, the defendant, John Henry Ahrndt, was charged with transporting and possessing child pornography. The court held that the Fourth Amendment was not violated when a local sheriff, acting without a warrant, used the defendant’s unsecured wireless network to search his computer for child pornography. The files found on Ahrndt’s computer were stored in a shared iTunes folder that was fed by a Limewire account and accessible by a neighbor who was piggybacking on the defendant’s unsecured wireless network. When taken together, the court found that all these factors indicated there was no expectation of privacy.

What Happened to the Wrong Man on an Unsecured Wifi Network

If you’re not using other people’s Wifi networks to commit cybercrime, why should you care about this decision? Because people who don’t password protect their Wifi routers can’t know when someone else is piggybacking on their wireless signal to commit crimes. And neither can the government until it does a full investigation. A 2011 Associated Press story highlighted the horrors of what it’s like to be wrong man on an unsecured Wifi connection on which a crime has been committed. According to the AP, federal agents raided a Buffalo man’s home, breaking down his door and confiscating his computer – all because they believed he downloaded thousands of child pornography pictures. A Sarasota man got a visit from the feds after someone in a boat docked at a nearby marina used a potato chip can as an antenna to boost his Wifi signal and download 10 million images of kiddie porn. Both of the accused were exonerated after the feds examined their computer files. Neighbors of theirs were later charged with committing the crimes using their unsecured Wifi networks. But it’s not only pedophiles and pornographers who are preying on people with open Wifi networks.

Grandmother Accused of Video Piracy on an Open Wifi Network

In 2010, CNET reported that a 53-year-old grandmother from Pueblo, Colorado got the shock of her life when Hollywood studios accused her of illegally downloading movies and shows like Harry Potter, Zombieland and South Park. After Cathy Paradiso was accused of copyright violation, her ISP threatened to terminate her service. Paradiso went to CNET which began asking questions. As a result, her ISP investigated and discovered that Paradiso’s unsecured wireless network had been compromised. The video pirate was someone else.

Law enforcement officials says stories like these are cautionary tales. Sharing files over an unsecured wireless networks could have cybercriminals and the law knocking at your door. Their advice to consumers: Password protect your wireless router.

How to Protect Your Wifi Network from Prying Eyes

∙ Create a secure password for your WPA or WPA2 router that’s darned near impossible to guess. That means one with between 8 and 20 letters (upper and lower case), as well as some numbers and punctuation. Avoid using dictionary words, proper names, common phrases and consecutive numbers. Change your password often.

∙ Make sure your firewall is turned on and your antivirus software is up to date. Do frequent scans.

∙ Disable file sharing.

∙ Change the SSID (Service Set Identifier or network name). This won’t have any effect on your network security. But a default setting could
tip off hackers that your network password may also not be secure.

∙ Turn off your wireless connection when you know you won’t be using it.

∙ Use a virtual private network solution like PRIVATE WiFi™. VPNs protect the data traveling to and from your computer by making it invisible to intruders – no matter what side of the law they’re on.

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Jan Legnitto

Jan Legnitto is an investigative journalist and documentary producer who writes about criminal justice and intelligence issues. Jan is also a frequent contributor to the Private I blogs.