Stealing your neighbor’s Net

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) – Forty bucks for high-speed Internet access? Not a bad deal. But how does free sound?


To a growing number of Internet piggy-backers, it’s the sweet sound of pirating their neighbor’s wireless network. Most new computers are equipped for wireless Internet access, and more and more people opting for Wi-Fi in their homes. But as the networks become stronger and more prevalent, more of those signals are available outside the home of the subscriber, spilling over into neighbor’s apartments, hallways and the street.

Add to this the growing number of cafes and other public “hot spots” that offer Wi-Fi (for wireless fidelity) connections and the ability to buy more powerful antennas that can pick up signals several hundred feet away. The coverage in some places can be pretty near flawless.

One study by Jupiter Research said 14 percent of wireless network owners have accessed their neighbor’s connection. Yet anecdotal evidence suggests that more and more people are logging on for free.

“I haven’t paid for Internet since I’ve been in New York City,” said one friend of this reporter. “Ditto,” chimed in another.

And as the practice of using someone else’s connection without paying for it expands, it raises the question: Is there anything wrong with that?
Will this land you in jail?

The legality of stealing your neighbor’s connection is murky at best.

“All of this stuff is so new, it’s hard to say what the liability issues are,” said Robert Hale, a San Francisco-based attorney who recently published an academic paper on the subject.

Hale points out that there is a federal law on the books that ostensibly prohibits using someone’s access point with out their permission. But “without permission” is vaguely defined and the law seems more geared towards computer hacking.

It seems pretty clear that if you hack your neighbor’s password then it could be reasonably argued you didn’t have authorization.

But securing many older wireless systems with a password is difficult and even newer ones can be a challenge if you’re running multiple computers or multiple operating systems. And, while it may be a violation of the user agreements with Internet service providers, some community-minded users deliberately leave their connections open for others to borrow.

“It’s a gray area,” said Paul Stamp, an analyst at the technology consultants Forester Research. “By not restricting access it could be argued that you’re implicitly making that available.”

“A broad statement concerning the access of unprotected wireless networks as being always legal or illegal simply can’t be made,” said Jackie Lesch, a spokeswoman for the Department of Justice. “It’s just kind of dicey.”

On a federal level, according to Lesch, prosecuting decisions are made on a case to case basis, mostly depending on the type of system accessed and what it was accessed for.

On the state level it could be more clear. “It’s unlawful access”, said John Geraty, an officer with the Internet crimes against children unit of the San Francisco Police Department.

According to Geraty, using your neighbor’s wireless is specifically prohibited in the California penal code. “It’s not yours and you’re taking it,” he says.

But Geraty said his department doesn’t deal with that type of crime specifically and an officer at the department’s fraud desk — whose jurisdiction it would fall under — said she couldn’t recall anyone ever being arrested for it.

Experts do agree that the likelihood of getting caught and prosecuted for stealing a wireless connection probably depends on how often you do it and how you’re using it.

“The damages are really the big issue,” said Hale. “Are you just poking around, checking your e-mail, or are you doing it on a regular basis and affecting this person’s bandwidth?”

Location also seems to play a part.

“If you’re in a Manhattan building with 30 apartments that’s one thing,” said Julie Ask, research director at the technology consultants Jupiter Research. “But if you’re the guy who parks your car in front of a suburban house in the middle of the night and you’ve got the screen from your laptop glowing, well…” speaking of a man who was arrested earlier this month in Florida for just that.
Exposing yourself

Legal questions aside, reliability is another reason to pay for your own access. If you are a heavy user or need the Internet to work from home, relying on a connection that your neighbor could shut off at any moment is probably not a good idea.

There is also the possibility that someone could have set up the unsecured connection as a trap. Experts say it’s possible for the network subscriber to gain at least partial access to your computer, read your e-mails and see the pages you visit if you are using their connection. Any personal information you send online could then be compromised.

So while pirating your neighbor’s Wi-Fi it may seem like a good way to siphon a free service, you may end up feeling pretty stupid if you get a summons for sneaking a peak at the latest sports scores or your favorite Web sites are the topic of conversation at the neighborhood Christmas party.

How much does Google know about you?


NEW YORK (AP) — Google is at once a powerful search engine and a growing e-mail provider. It runs a blogging service, makes software to speed Web traffic and has ambitions to become a digital library. And it is developing a payments service.

Although many Internet users eagerly await each new technology from Google Inc., its rapid expansion is also prompting concerns that the company may know too much: what you read, where you surf and travel, whom you write.

“This is a lot of personal information in a single basket,” said Chris Hoofnagle, senior counsel with the Electronic Privacy Information Center. “Google is becoming one of the largest privacy risks on the Internet.”

Not that Hoofnagle is suggesting that Google has strayed from its mantra of making money “without doing evil.”

Rather, some privacy advocates worry about the potential: The data’s very existence — conveniently all under a single digital roof — makes Google a prime target for abuse by overzealous law enforcers and criminals alike.

Through hacking or with the assistance of rogue employees, they say, criminals could steal data for blackmail or identity theft. Recent high-profile privacy breaches elsewhere underscore the vulnerability of even those systems where thoughtful security measures are taken.

Law enforcement, meanwhile, could obtain information that later becomes public, in court filings or otherwise, about people who are not even targets of a particular investigation.

Though Google’s privacy protection is generally comparable to _ even better than — those at Microsoft Corp., Yahoo Inc., Inc. and a host of other Internet giants, “I don’t think any of the others have the scope of personal information that Google does,” Hoofnagle said.

Plus, Google’s practices may influence rivals given its dominance in search and the fierce competition.

“Google is perhaps the most noteworthy right now by the simple fact that they are the 800-pound gorilla,” said Lauren Weinstein, a veteran computer scientist and privacy advocate. “What they do tends to set a pattern and precedent.”

The concerns reflect Google’s growing heft. As startups get bigger and more powerful, scrutiny often follows.

Google says it takes privacy seriously.

“In general, as a company, we look at privacy from design all the way (through) launch,” said Nicole Wong, an associate general counsel at Google.

That means product managers, engineers and executives — not just lawyers — consider the privacy implications as new technologies are developed and new services offered, Wong said.

She also said that Google regularly seeks feedback from civil liberties groups such as the Center for Democracy and Technology and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, both of which credit Google for listening even if it doesn’t always agree.

Google’s privacy statements specify that only some of its employees have access to personal data — on a need-to-know basis _ and such access is logged to deter abuse.

Google Chief Executive Eric Schmidt says a tradeoff exists between privacy and functionality, and the company believes in making fully optional — and seeking permission beforehand — any services that require personally identifiable information.

“There are always options to not use that set of technology and remain anonymous,” Schmidt told reporters in May.

But what is meant by personally identifiable information is subject to debate.

Google automatically keeps records of what search terms people use and when, attaching the information to a user’s numeric Internet address and a unique ID number stored in a Web browser “cookie” file that Google uploads to computers unless users reconfigure their browsers to reject them.

Like most Internet companies, Google says it doesn’t consider the data personally identifiable. But Internet addresses can often be traced to a specific user.

Here’s just some of the ways Google can collect data on its users:

One of Gmail’s selling points is its ability to retain e-mail messages “forever.”

Google’s program for scanning library books sometimes requires usernames to protect copyrights.

The company is testing software for making Web pages load more quickly; the application routes all Web requests through its servers.

Google also provides driving directions, photo sharing and instant messaging, and it is developing a payments service that critics say could add billing information to user profiles.

Because storage is cheap, data from these services can be retained practically forever, and Google won’t specify how long it keeps such information.

Without elaborating, Google says it “may share” data across such services as e-mail and search. It also provides information to outside parties serving as Google’s agents — though they must first agree to uphold Google’s privacy policies.

Much of the concern, though, stems from a fear of the unknown.

“Everybody gets worried about what they (Google) could do but what they have done to date has not seemed to violate any privacy that anyone has documented,” said Danny Sullivan, editor of the online newsletter Search Engine Watch.

Eric Goldman, a cyberlaw professor at Marquette University, believes the focus ought to be on the underlying problem: access by hackers and law enforcement.

“We still need to have good technology to inhibit the hackers. We still need laws that make hacking criminal. We still need restraints on government surveillance,” Goldman said. “Google’s database doesn’t change any of that.”

Anne Rubin, 20, a New York University junior who uses Google’s search, Gmail and Blogger services, says quality overrides any privacy concerns, and she doesn’t mind that profiles are built on her in order to make the ads she sees more relevant.

“I see it as a tradeoff. They give services for free,” she said. “I have a vague assumption that things I do (online) aren’t entirely private. It doesn’t faze me.”

Larry Ponemon, a privacy adviser, says research by his Ponemon Institute found Google consistently getting high marks for trust.

By contrast, Microsoft, whose software sometimes crashes and regularly gets violated by hackers, didn’t fare as well despite what Ponemon and others acknowledge are improvements in its approach to privacy.

“People confuse customer service with obligations to maintain privacy,” Ponemon said. “Google has a product that seems to work. It gets almost like a free ride on privacy.”

That’s changing.

Google, a perennially secretive company, may share some of the blame. It goes out of its way to strip its privacy statements of legalese so they are easier to read. But the statements remain vague on how long the company keeps data.

In an interview, Wong said Google had no set time limits on data retention; such determinations are left to individual product teams. She said the information helps Google know how well it is doing — for instance, are users getting the results they want in the first five, 10 or 100 hits?

“We keep data that’s collected from our services for as long as we think it’s useful,” she said.

Google says it releases data when required by law, but its privacy statements offer few details. Wong said Google doesn’t surrender data without a subpoena, court order or warrant. But she would not offer any details on how many requests it gets, or how often, and federal law bars Google from disclosing requests related to national security.

For civil lawsuits, Wong said, Google warns users before it complies so they can file objections with a court — a fact the company doesn’t publicize.

Mark Rasch, who was a Justice Department prosecutor in the 1980s and has since advised companies on getting data from Internet companies, says electronic records will only become more relevant for investigators searching for evidence of intent and knowledge.

“As Google becomes more involved in parts of your lives including chats and blog, then it’s going to get lots more subpoenas,” he said. “It’s a lot more than just a search tool.”

Hacker may have accessed applicants’ records

LOS ANGELES, California (AP) — Officials of the University of Southern California said they will contact everyone who used the school’s online application system in the past eight years to warn them that a hacker may have been able to read their files.

School security officials said they plan to contact about 270,000 people although they believe the hacker looked at only about 10 files.

“Although we believe that the scope of this is pretty small, we’re taking it very seriously and we are taking great care to notify every single person where there is even the potential that their records might have been viewed,” said L. Katharine Harrington, USC’s dean of admission and financial aid.

The hacker took advantage of a security flaw he discovered while trying to use the USC Web site on June 20, said Robert M. Wood, USC’s information security officer.

However, the hacker then reported the flaw to an online security magazine, SecurityFocus, and the publication informed USC.

Wood said the FBI was notified but he doubted that any criminal case will be pursued because there didn’t appear to have been any malicious attempt to obtain private information.

FBI officials would not comment.

Since the middle of last year, computer security lapses have been reported at several other schools.

Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University all rejected dozens of business school applicants who tried to access admissions Web sites earlier this year in hopes of learning their fate ahead of schedule.

A former University of Texas student was indicted last fall on charges he hacked into the school’s computer system and stole Social Security numbers and other personal information from more than 37,000 students and employees. California State University, Chico, had a similar incident in March.

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