Man arrested for hopping on to home Wi-Fi network

A man who allegedly accessed a home Wi-Fi network in St. Petersburg, Fla., from a parked car got logged off the hard way: He was arrested and charged with a felony.

Benjamin Smith III, 40, was arrested on April 21 outside the St. Petersburg home of Richard Dinon and charged under a Florida law that prohibits unauthorized access to a computer or network, said George Kajtsa, the police department's public information officer. A pre-trial hearing in the case is scheduled for Monday, according to the state attorney's office for Pasco and Pinellas counties.

Dinon saw Smith sitting in a parked sport-utility vehicle in front of his house and wondered what he was doing there, then saw he was using a notebook computer, Kajtsa said.

"What made him suspicious was, every time he looked toward the car, the guy closed the lid on his laptop," Kajtsa said. Dinon called police. When they came to the scene and approached the vehicle, Smith closed the computer again. The police asked him what he was doing and he finally owned up to it, Kajtsa said. Smith was arrested and the PC seized and sent to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement as potential evidence.

Dinon was worried that Smith might be doing something illegal or inappropriate, Kajtsa said.

"What he was concerned about was not so much that the guy was accessing his [network], what he was concerned about was what he was accessing," Kajtsa said. Dinon was afraid he might be linked to whatever Smith was doing because it was his LAN being used, he said. "This guy did not want himself to be identified as accessing porn sites or child pornography."

The state law under which Smith was charged prohibits accessing a computer or network knowingly, willfully and without authorization. Kajtsa said it's the first time anyone has been arrested in St. Petersburg for using someone else's Wi-Fi.

"This is a very little-used statute," Kajtsa said.

Gartner analyst Ken Dulaney has no sympathy for Wi-Fi users such as Dinon.

"He should have put security on his wireless LAN system. It's the guy's fault that he left it open," Dulaney said. "Don't the police have anything better to do?"

Open WLANs are still common in many residential areas even though Wi-Fi routers can be set not to broadcast their names and tools for encryption have improved since the early days of the technology. Dulaney estimated that half of all WLANs are completely open to unauthorized users.

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