The legal issues surrounding intercepting data sent over unencrypted WiFi networks have just become more ambiguous after a federal judge in Illinois has ruled that the practice is not tantamount to wiretapping. Anyone familiar with a particular privacy case brought against Google will know that this latest ruling goes against the 2011 decision that the search giant violated the law when its Street View cars harvested fragments of data from open WiFi networks around the USA and in other countries.
The letter of the law is key here: while federal law makes it illegal to intercept electronic communications, there is an important exception. It is not illegal to intercept communications “made through an electronic communication system that is configured so that such electronic communication is readily accessible to the general public.”
The particular case in question involves a company called Innovatio IP Ventures, who wanted to use packet sniffing gear to gather WiFi traffic for use against various “hotels, coffee shops, restaurants” and other businesses that it accuses of infringing patents. Judge James Holderman ruled that this falls within the exception:
“A basic packet capture adapter is available for only $198.00. The software necessary to analyze the data that the packet capture adapters collect is available for download for free. With a packet capture adapter and the software, along with a basic laptop computer, any member of the general public within range of an unencrypted WiFi network can begin intercepting communications sent on that network… the court concludes that the communications sent on an unencrypted WiFi networks are readily available to the general public.”
Putting this particular case and the legality of the practice to one side for a moment, this ruling should hopefully serve as a warning to most that it is very important to secure your own networks. As well as this, when using public networks such as the WiFi at a coffee shop, make sure that you are careful what information you share and how you go about sharing it.