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Wi-Fi Connection Laws

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What is “Wi-Fi”?

The term “Wi-Fi” generally refers to a router device that allows other devices to connect to the Internet through wireless network technology.  Some examples of devices that may be wi-fi enabled include personal computers, laptops, smartphones, video game console, and digital audio players such as an iPod.

Wi-fi networks have become commonplace in homes, workplaces, and businesses.  A public space where wi-fi access is made available to persons is known as a “hotspot”. 

The main concern with wi-fi networks is that persons who use the network can access the computer files of other users on the same network.  This may lead to other computer issues such as hacking.  Also, any person can use a wi-fi network that is not secured with a password, even if they are not authorized by the owner, though this is considered illegal in most jurisidictions.  

Is it Legal to “Piggyback” or use a Neighbor’s Unsecured Wi-Fi Connection?

Using another person’s unsecured wi-fi connection without their consent is known as “piggybacking” or “mooching”.  If a person’s wi-fi internet connection is not secured by a password, any person can usually connect to the account, even without the owner’s permission.  Piggybacking commonly occurs when a person uses their neighbor’s wi-fi without their permission, or when a person sitting in a car near a home accesses the resident’s wi-fi.   

Piggybacking is illegal according to the laws of several states, and also according to federal laws such as the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.  For example, piggybacking is considered to be a Class A misdemeanor in the state of New York. 

Many argue that the laws governing piggybacking are unclear, especially with regards to terms such as “access” and “authorization”.  However, there have already been many cases where a person was arrested on criminal charges for the unauthorized use of an unsecured wi-fi connection.  In the state of Florida, a defendant even faced felony charges for piggybacking. 

Therefore, it is highly advisable not to use a wi-fi connection if you do not have the owner’s permission to use it.  While the laws still need some clarification, you could definitely face criminal consequences such as a fine or even jail time for piggybacking.  You should always obtain the owner’s consent before using any wi-fi connection.    

Is it Legal for me to Share my Wi-fi with my Neighbor?

It might not be legal to share your wi-fi connection with a neighbor.  This depends on the wording that is found in your individual service contract with your internet provider.  Most wi-fi companies prohibit the shared usage of wi-fi for unsubscribed and non-paying users.  If this is the case, you could be in violation of contract laws if you share your wi-fi with a neighbor who is not authorized to use the services.

Wi-fi internet companies have acknowledged that they can recognize “inordinately high usage” of a single account, which usually happens due to illicit sharing.  Thus, your wi-fi provider will be able to monitor your account and can tell if you are in violation of policies. 

On the other hand, some wi-fi contracts actually encourage the shared usage of the wi-fi connection.  It all depends on what type of contract you have with your wi-fi company.

Is it legal for me to use a public wi-fi hotspot without their permission?

Generally, no.  Public wi-fi hotspots allow a person to connect to a wi-fi network free of charge.  Hotspots are typically found at social locations such as a coffee shop or a restaurant.  Many businesses create a wi-fi hotspot, but they often restrict their network to certain terms of usage, including:

  • Restricting the time of day or the locations where the public internet may be accessed.
  • Limiting the amount of network bandwidth that may be used by an individual person.
  • Prohibiting inappropriate online activity, such as viewing or downloading illicit content.
  • Requiring the user to remain within a designated area within the business premises (i.e., you cannot sit in your car in the parking lot and use the wi-fi, even if the signal reaches you).
  • Some businesses require a person to patronize their business first before they can log on to the wi-fi network.

Again, it is important to obtain the wi-fi owner’s consent before using their connection.
Violations of wi-fi laws can lead to possible criminal consequences. 

Do I need a Lawyer for Violations of Wi-Fi Laws?

Wireless Wi-Fi internet networks are a relatively new kind of technology.  Thus, the laws governing wi-fi usage are still being developed.  Furthermore, these laws may often be subject to change as the wi-fi technology advances.  You may wish to hire a lawyer if you have any questions regarding a violation of wi-fi laws.  Your attorney can explain the laws of your local jurisdiction to you.  Wi-fi, internet, and cyber crimes can often carry severe legal penalties with them.  A competent lawyer can help you defend your case in court. 

Photo of page author Ken LaMance

, LegalMatch Law Library Managing Editor and Attorney at Law

Last Modified: 05-04-2011 03:38 PM PDT

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