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Wi-Fi guidance becomes law in California

Manufacturers to warn on wireless security

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California legislators have passed a law which will force makers of wireless internet equipment to include guidance on keeping data secure on wireless connections. The law now awaits signature by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

From 1 October 2007, manufacturers must place warning labels on all equipment capable of receiving Wi-Fi signals, according to the new state law. These can take the form of box stickers, special notification in setup software, notification during the router setup, or through automatic securing of the connection. One warning sticker must be positioned so that it must be removed by a consumer before the product can be used.

The warnings would have to contain information on how to secure files, folders, and connections. Wireless internet connections can be used by anyone with Wi-Fi capability within the range of the transmitter unless they are secured.

While many users have traditionally shared their connections, leaving them open for others to use, other users are becoming increasingly concerned about the implications of "piggybacking" on networks.

The legislation acknowledges disagreement in the US as to whether it is legal for someone to use another person's unprotected Wi-Fi connection. "While Section 502 of the Penal Code prohibits the unauthorized access to computers, computer systems, and computer data, authorized use is determined by the specific circumstances of the access," it states. "There are also federal laws, including the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act [...]that prohibit the intentional access to a computer without authorisation."

Struan Robertson, editor of OUT-LAW.COM and a technology lawyer with Pinsent Masons, said companies are not required to provide such warning labels under UK law, but said the position about using another's connection is clearer.

"The Communications Act includes an offence of dishonestly obtaining an electronic communications service 'with intent to avoid payment of a charge applicable to the provision of that service'," said Robertson. "We've already seen a conviction in the UK for using someone else's Wi-Fi connection without authority."

In July 2005, Gregory Straszkiewicz became the first person to be convicted under this provision. He was fined £500 at London's Islewoth Crown Court. The Act provides for a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a fine.

There can be unusual benefits to leaving a network open, however. One resident of Palm Desert, California, recently forced the music industry to drop its case against her partly because her wireless network was left open.

Tammie Marson was accused by record labels Virgin, Sony BMG, Arista, Universal and Warner Brothers of illegally sharing copyrighted music files. She argued that because anyone in the vicinity of her house could have used her connection, the record labels could not rely on the fact that her connection was used, but would have to prove that she was the one actually performing the actions.

Marson's lawyer, Seyamack Kouretchian of Coast Law Group, told OUT-LAW Radio that evidence that Marson's connection was used was not enough. "The best that they could do, the absolute best, was prove that the music was on a computer that had accessed the internet through her internet connection," he said. "You had neighbours who would have had access to her internet connection over a wireless router so it could have been anybody."

"The record label got in the neighbourhood of the infringement but they need to prove who the infringer is, they have to do a lot better than just prove that there was some infringement in this neighbourhood and therefore hold Tammie responsible for it," he said. Kouretchian was speaking to OUT-LAW Radio, the weekly technology law podcast.

Listen to OUT-LAW Radio

See: California's bill

Copyright © 2006, OUT-LAW.com

OUT-LAW.COM is part of international law firm Pinsent Masons.

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