Michigan Man Fined $400 for Using Coffee Shop’s Wi-Fi Network

Well this is a harsh turn of events, a while back an ‘ethics expert’ said Wifi Jacking is OK, now this poor guy has got pretty harshly screwed for using an open wireless connection from a nearby coffeeshop.

A Michigan man has been fined $400 and given 40 hours of community service for accessing an open wireless Internet connection outside a coffee shop.

Under a little known state law against computer hackers, Sam Peterson II, of Cedar Springs, Mich., faced a felony charge after cops found him on March 27 sitting in front of the Re-Union street Café in Sparta, Mich., surfing the Web from his brand-new laptop.

Last week, Peterson chose to pay the fine instead as part of a jail-diversion program.

$400 bucks and 40 hours of community service, that’s not exactly a light sentence. I think they are trying to send out a pretty strong message.

A lot of people don’t seem to see how this is illegal and I think it is a pretty spurious interpretation of the laws myself.

Someone from a nearby barbershop had called cops after seeing Peterson’s car pull up every day and sit in front of the coffee shop without anybody getting out.

“I just curiously asked him, ‘Where are you getting the Internet connection?’, you know,” Sparta Police Chief Andrew Milanowski said. “And he said, ‘From the café.'”

Milanowski ruled out Peterson as a possible stalker of the attractive local hairdresser, but still felt that a law might have been broken.

“We came back and we looked up the laws and we figured if we found one and thought, ‘Well, let’s run it by the prosecutor’s office and see what they want to do,'” Milanowski said.

A few weeks later Peterson said he received a letter from the Kent County prosecutor’s office saying that he faced a felony charge of fraudulent access to computer networks and that a request had been made for an arrest warrant.

After reading the article it just seems like a case of bad luck, the cops wanted to nail him for something, in fact ANYTHING, so they dug up this old law and bent it into shape.

Poor guy.

“All over the TV, all the commercials and whatnot you see, they’re all trying to get you to buy all these laptops and things that are wireless,” he said. “They’re trying to get you to buy this wireless stuff because you can go anywhere and still be connected.

“Well, they don’t happen to tell you that it’s illegal,” he continued. “And I guess obviously you’re just supposed to know that.”

So true.

This raises some interesting ethical issues.

Source: Fox News

Posted in: Legal Issues, Wireless Hacking

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24 Responses to Michigan Man Fined $400 for Using Coffee Shop’s Wi-Fi Network

  1. Sypherknife June 4, 2007 at 5:55 am #

    Wait…. so if its illegal to use an open network now?
    Then there is no point in buying the coffee anyway!

    Oh what a world we live in!

  2. Konpaku June 4, 2007 at 7:56 am #

    This is blasphemy… I mean he was just pulling up to use the wifi. Does that mean that if he had bought a coffee and had it in his car that the prosecution would be different? Not only was that unethical, but unless he was being charged with any crmininal intentions they should refund him and revise some legislature. what world are we living in?

  3. Daniel June 4, 2007 at 8:39 am #

    It is most definately not illeagal to use open wifi at a coffeeshop, however it might be considered…. unethical… okay not even really unethical. but at the very least, rude. Go in and buy a coffee, help cover the bandwidth bill. dont be a loser

  4. none June 4, 2007 at 12:01 pm #

    buy a fscking tonload of styrofoam cups with the company logo on, drink your own coffee from those, and leech the hell out of their network. ;)

  5. Torvaun June 4, 2007 at 12:48 pm #

    Well, I suddenly have a strong urge to find out exactly what computer laws are active here in Wisconsin.

  6. Bogwitch June 4, 2007 at 2:26 pm #

    Konpaku, yes, if he was buying coffee, there would have been no problem. The coffee shop manager had no problem with this guy using the wireless, even if he didn’t buy coffee. This was purely a prosecution by the police.
    I would be interested if anyone could give me a clue if this sort of thing could happen in the UK. I’m sure that piggybacking on my neighbours Wifi, secured or not, without permission, would be illegal but I’m not so sure about an access point that is /supposed/ to be public…. Anyone?

  7. Martin McKeay June 4, 2007 at 6:06 pm #

    Since someone was convicted of a crime, it’s currently illegal. Until the law is changed or a judge in a higher court issues a contradictory ruling, this ruling is the interpretation of the law.

    You might want to take a look at your local laws before you go out wardriving next time. There have been people convicted in the last year in Alaska and Florida during the last year for using people’s wireless connections without authorization.

    I think that the law should put the onus of securing the wireless the merchant’s responsibility, and that an open access point is an implied invitation to use the connection. But the law doesn’t work that way, and probably won’t.

  8. Daniel June 4, 2007 at 10:00 pm #

    darn i wish i read japanese better so i could check into these laws over here.

  9. Torvaun June 4, 2007 at 10:54 pm #

    Bogwitch: Do the police get to do that in a case like this? I know that if my best friend punched me in the face for no reason, or even for a very good reason, I have the opportunity to not press charges. Disturbing the peace or similar might still apply, but not assault. What does the coffeeshop owner get to say about this?

  10. Cutaway June 5, 2007 at 6:41 am #

    I started an interesting thread at the Security Catalyst Community titled Calling BullSh** on WiFi Prosecution. In the thread Rebecca Herold points out that the Michigan law associated with the prosecution basically states that if a network does not specifically advertise that it is for public use then it is a private network.

    The intent of the law is fairly clear. It is designed to protect all the wireless networks operating out of private residences. Unfortunately it really leaves a gap for all the hotspots and this is an obvious case. If the coffee shop did not want non-paying customers using their network then they should have placed a terms of service banner on their network. By not doing so they are basically proclaiming themselves a private network. Which, of course, means that any of their customers connecting to this network were guilty of the same crime.

    I agree with Torvaun in so much as I believe the coffee shop should have played a bigger part in this whole event. They should have been given the option to press or drop charges. Until all of the hotspot owners realize that they have to declare their networks for public use all hotspot users are going to be subject to possible arrest under this law.

    As to the actions of the police chief I am divided. He could be looking to make a name for himself or he could be trying to find a way to protect his community from persons using hotspots for illegal means such as child pornography. Hopefully it is the latter. Either way I think that he was a little over zealous in the way that he pursued this case.

    Go forth and do good things,

  11. Torvaun June 5, 2007 at 8:18 am #

    I’ve got a saying I heard years ago, and I’ve always liked it. “Why does not matter, only what.” It goes well with “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” There is no reason sufficient for tyranny, and this overzealous police chief fits the description.

    Here, they started with a person, then looked for a crime. They thought he was stalking someone. That’s a good reason to approach him, and I applaud them. But then they found out that he was just leeching bandwidth, and they went out of their way to find a law that was close enough. I’m of the opinion that that open WiFi should be open. Even if they use a WEP password of 1234512345, they have gone through the motions of security, and obviously intended for this to be a private use network (for some values of private, including paying customers.)

    I’d really like to see someone post the text of this law. It may turn out that having your laptop automatically connect to a WiFi hotspot as you’re driving by is illegal. In this case, the best way to get the law changed is by using it. Set up a completely open WAP, with as much range as you can get. Now you just use whatever tricks you need to get a log that clearly shows a police officer cruising by and connecting. Now you press charges, and the law gets dropped.

  12. cutaway June 5, 2007 at 1:38 pm #

    Here is the part of the law that Rebecca quoted in her post to the Security Catalyst Community forum.

    (6) It is a rebuttable presumption in a prosecution for a violation of section 5 that the person did not have authorization from the owner, system operator, or other person who has authority from the owner or system operator to grant permission to access the computer program, computer, computer system, or computer network or has exceeded authorization unless 1 or more of the following circumstances existed at the time of access:
    (a) Written or oral permission was granted by the owner, system operator, or other person who has authority from the owner or system operator to grant permission of the accessed computer program, computer, computer system, or computer network.
    (b) The accessed computer program, computer, computer system, or computer network had a pre-programmed access procedure that would display a bulletin, command, or other message before access was achieved that a reasonable person would believe identified the computer program, computer, computer system, or computer network as within the public domain.
    (c ) Access was achieved without the use of a set of instructions, code, or computer program that bypasses, defrauds, or otherwise circumvents the pre-programmed access procedure for the computer program, computer, computer system, or computer network.

    I guess the people who enter an establishment and access their hotspot have “oral” authorization. But even that is assuming too much. From this I think that the owner of the hotspot should have been included in the proceedings. I understand where this law is trying to go but they should have had somebody with a little technical background in wireless communications help with the wording. Actually, I bet they did, who ever it was dropped the ball and did not take into consideration hotspots or even how wireless networking on a Windows platform works.

    Go forth and do good things,

  13. the internet architect June 5, 2007 at 5:06 pm #

    Obviously if people provided some type of protection on their network this would be legitimate. Over zealous law enforcement!!!

  14. Torvaun June 5, 2007 at 6:00 pm #

    No, if they (coffee shop) provided some sort of protection on their network, what the Michigan guy did would fit the crime they (Michigan police) charged him under. If you have to circumvent protection, no matter how weak, it is unauthorized access.

    This was a guy connecting to an open network. This should not be a crime.

  15. Bogwitch June 5, 2007 at 9:45 pm #

    Torvaun: Let me start by stating IANAL (or American) :)
    From what I have read, the nature of the crime (felony?) means that the police do not need a victim to testify.
    We all know it’s bllox but I’m sure there’s more to this story than we are being told.
    If I were to speculate, I would guess that the bloke in the car got VERY defensive when questioned by the police as he felt he had done nothing wrong, and the police got all uppity in response.
    It’s like when you get pulled over – do you say ‘I’m really sorry, I know I was going a bit fast, I won’t do it again.” or do you say “What the **** are you pulling me over for!!!! Haven’t you got better things to do, like catching terrorists or rapists??….”
    Who’s more likely to get a caution?

  16. Torvaun June 5, 2007 at 10:08 pm #

    Bogwitch: Now there’s a possibility I hadn’t considered. This is very possible, and makes it much more likely that they would have started looking for something, anything, that they could pin on him. Still a bad law, but he chose to pay a fine instead of fight it, so there’s really nothing higher courts can do right now.

  17. Daniel June 5, 2007 at 10:14 pm #

    @ bogwitch

    a felony is a crime in which the police do not need a prosecutor.
    murder is one such crime, kidnapping is another. For example, if i kidnap you and you want to drop the charges, the state will take over and continue prosecuting me.

  18. Dominic the wolf of the four winds June 8, 2007 at 3:04 am #

    this guy was a victim. and i don’t care about the law i have a wireless card that is mod so it has killer range and covers tracks(most of the time anyway)(grrrrr still needs a lil work)

  19. Ed Kohler June 8, 2007 at 7:42 pm #

    How can you steal something that people are giving away? If they didn’t want people to use their network, they could easily protect it. I blame the coffee shop more than the guy in this situation.

  20. Sam June 18, 2007 at 12:51 am #

    This shouldn’t be a criminal case. If anything, it’s a civil matter. The state shouldn’t care or be wasting their time with a person using someone else’s open wireless connection. The only person or company that has a right to press charges is that coffee shop and I’m sure they wouldn’t press charges if he agreed to stop being cheap and buy a cup of coffee.

  21. sfumato November 14, 2007 at 5:18 pm #

    Must’ve been slow at the police station…

    So, is a wireless connection automatically considered part of a computer network? I use a wireless router connected directly to the cable modem, so at times there is no computer, but still open wifi access… or is the router considered a computer in this case.

    Seems like: “(c ) Access was achieved without the use of a set of instructions, code, or computer program that bypasses, defrauds, or otherwise circumvents the pre-programmed access procedure” Describes accessing an unprotected wireless connection to me… An intentional lack of security would qualify as a preprogrammed access procedure in my book.

  22. Nobody_Holme November 14, 2007 at 5:54 pm #

    Damn right thats pre-programmed… its what the damn thing is meant for… but there we go, the law is, always has been, and always will be, an ass.

  23. James aka The Real NeO August 27, 2008 at 11:31 am #

    I feel this is all crap as it is an open network especially for public access is crazy poor guy
    by my understanding there is no user agreement in the coffee shop so i am just angry they rap** someone for this

  24. lyz August 28, 2008 at 2:46 pm #

    Now we can say that really.. nothing’s free at all in this world.