In this scare-mongering article from the Sacramento Bee about people who use open WiFi networks, a cop from the Sacramento Valley Hi-Tech Crimes Task Force makes a remarkable statement about homemade WiFi antennas:
Last month in Elk Grove, a high-school student faced eight felony computer-theft charges for allegedly hacking into his school's computer system and changing his grades.
When police searched his home, they found aluminum-lined, cylindrical potato-chip containers that some hackers use as crude antennas to help them intercept wireless signals.
Known as "cantennas," they consist of a Pringles can and some hardware worth $5 to $10 but can be used to amplify a wireless signal several miles away.
"They're unsophisticated but reliable, and it's illegal to possess them," said Lozito of the Hi-Tech Crimes Task Force.
Then the reporter goes on to note:
It's also illegal to access wireless networks that aren't public. In other words, if you've ever been pleasantly surprised to open your laptop, pull up your browser and have Internet access, that likely means you've just intruded into someone else's unsecured network – and really aren't allowed to be there.
Huh? I'm not sure which law-book these two are reading, but this is simply not true. If there are cops from a "Hi-Tech Crimes Task Force" in Sacramento who think that making your own WiFi antenna is illegal, I think the Bee and other papers should be covering it, to be sure, but not because it's true: because it's a shockingly stupid and dangerous thing for a cop to believe, especially one who is billed as some kind of high-tech specialist.
Likewise, I'm not sure who told this reporter that accessing an open wireless network is illegal, but again, it's not true. There are certainly circumstances where doing so is illegal, and others where it's perfectly legal (for an unambiguous example of the latter, consider what happens if both you and your neighbor have a network called "linksys." When you're in the front of your house, you're closer to your AP than his, so your laptop connects to your AP. When you go to the back bedroom, your computer seamlessly and transparently flips to your neighbor's network. This isn't lawbreaking: it's standards-compliant behavior.)
I hope the Bee does a followup on this story where civil liberties get their due.
Update: I just had a brief phone conversation with Lt Lozito of the Hi-Tech Crimes Task Force. He's a pretty reasonable guy. He says he doesn't remember if he said that cantennas are illegal, but he affirms that he doesn't believe that they are. He suggested that he thought that in some cases of computer intrusion, convicted offenders should have their access to devices limited as a condition of parole, but that he didn't believe that cantennas are illegal, and he also doesn't think it's illegal to access open wireless networks -- except when this is done for illegal purposes. He's apparently fielded a lot of calls on the subject and I suggested that he post a statement about this before he gets slashdotted. I hope he does -- I'll link to it here when and if.