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Last Updated: Thursday, 28 July 2005, 08:51 GMT 09:51 UK
Wireless hijacking under scrutiny
Jane Wakefield
Technology reporter, BBC News website

Woman using a laptop in a railway station
Hotspots are popping up all over the country
A recent court case, which saw a West London man fined 500 and sentenced to 12 months' conditional discharge for hijacking a wireless broadband connection, has repercussions for almost every user of wi-fi networks.

It is believed to be the first case of its kind in the UK, but with an estimated one million wi-fi users around the country, it is unlikely to be the last.

"There are a lot of implications and this could open the floodgates to many more such cases," said Phil Cracknell, chief technology officer of security firm NetSurity.

Details in this particular case are sketchy, although it is known that Gregory Straszkiewicz had "piggybacked" on a wireless broadband network of a local Ealing resident, using a laptop while sitting in his car.

He had been seen in the area on several previous occasions over the past three months and is believed to have been reported to police by a neighbour concerned that he was acting suspiciously.

The case is some way away from that of Brian Salcedo, who was sentenced to nine years in a US jail last year for the far more serious crime of siphoning credit card numbers over the wireless network of hardware store Lowes.

Unauthorised access

The criminal aspect of the case of Salcedo is obvious and is clearly reflected in the sentence dished out.

Man with laptop
Wireless networks at home give people freedom to move about
But the crime committed in the case of Straszkiewicz, where he appears simply to have used the network, is perhaps less obvious.

Not to Simon Janes, a former head of the Computer Crime Unit and now operations manager for computer forensics firm Ibas.

"Gaining unauthorised access to someone else's network is an offence and people have to take responsibility for their actions. Some people might argue that taking a joy-ride in someone else's car is not an offence either," he said.

Gaining unauthorised access to a computer is an offence covered by the Computer Misuse Act. In Straszkiewcz's case, he was prosecuted under the Communications Act and found guilty of dishonestly obtaining an electronic communications service.

"I guess, and it is a guess, that they couldn't prove he accessed the actual computer and that is why they used another legal avenue," said Mr Janes.

But whatever route the case took, the outcome proves that borrowing someone else's network is not as harmless as the hobbyist wi-fi user might think.

Lax security

It is not just those people driving around in search of a "free" network who have to worry.

The perception among domestic users is that providing security is difficult and it does depend on the competence of the user
Simon Janes, Ibas
People with criminal intentions have, in the past, attempted to use the openness of their own wireless networks to cover their tracks online.

"There have been incidences where paedophiles deliberately leave their wireless networks open so that, if caught, they can say that is wasn't them that used the network for illegal purposes," said NetSurity's Mr Cracknell.

Such a defence would hold little water as the person installing the network, be they a home user or a business, has ultimate responsibility for any criminal activity that takes place on that network, whether it be launching a hack attack or downloading illegal pornography.

Despite this, businesses and residential users continue to fail to take that responsibility seriously by securing their networks, said Mr Cracknell.

A joint survey by RSA Security and NetSurity, conducted in March of this year, found that more than a third of wireless networks in London and Frankfurt had the basic security features turned off.

Many had failed to turn on the encryption that scrambles the data traffic between users and the access point.

Freebie wi-fi

"The perception among domestic users is that providing security is difficult and it does depend on the competence of the user," said Mr Janes.

Mr Cracknell called for an awareness campaign, similar to the one recently run on TV highlighting the threats of identity theft.

The perception in the past has been that borrowing a bit of bandwidth is cheeky but not really criminal behaviour.

With wi-fi operating at speeds of up to 20 times faster than broadband it is unlikely to slow the system down noticeably unless the borrower is downloading huge files and, unless the owner of the network has intrusion detection software, he or she is unlikely to notice the squatters.

The fact that Straszkiewicz narrowly escaped a harsher sentence, had to pay a 500 fine and had his laptop and wireless card confiscated indicates such squatting might not be worthwhile.

Detective Constable Stephone Rothwell from Ealing CID was involved in the case and said future cases would be treated in the same way.

"This case is the first of its type in the United Kingdom and it sets an example to people who use increased computer technology to try and avoid paying for the internet," he said.

It could be that the days of freebie wi-fi are coming to an end.

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