We live in a time where online access points (including Wi-Fi) are ubiquitous. In many locations here in California, one can open their laptop and detect several Wi-Fi networks.
It's too easy for someone to notice their neighbor's Wi-Fi isn't password-protected, or perhaps even "guess" the password, and hop on for "free" Wi-Fi. The question is, is it against the law to do so?
The short answer is yes. Unauthorized access to Wi-Fi, or any computer services, is considered "stealing" Wi-Fi and is a crime under California's Penal Code 502 PC. If caught doing so and convicted, you could face surprisingly high fines and up to three years in prison.
Many believe internet access should be free because it's now a primary tool for communication, work, entertainment, and media. Many homes are equipped with Wi-Fi networks, allowing residents to connect.
The wireless signals are usually strong enough to extend to neighboring homes, meaning you can utilize your neighbor's Wi-Fi network if they do not secure it. This is often tempting because you wouldn't have to pay anything for an Internet Service Provider (ISP).
Stealing (borrowing) a neighbor's Wi-Fi network, often called “pirating or piggybacking,” is technically illegal, but it does not mean it's frequently prosecuted. It is pretty rare, however, to be charged with a crime for “borrowing” your neighbor's wireless internet signal.
As noted, PC 502 unauthorized computer access law does consider a form of unlawful access to a computer a crime, including wireless internet service. A conviction under this law is a misdemeanor that carries up to one year in jail and a fine of up to $5,000.
To violate this law, you must use Wi-Fi without the owner's permission and know that you are using it without consent. So, how would you know you did not have the owner's permission if they did not protect their wireless signal with a password?
What Does the Law Say?
Penal Code 502 PC is a comprehensive law that deals with computer-related crimes in California.
PC 502 says, “(a) It is the intent of the Legislature in enacting this section to expand the degree of protection afforded to individuals, businesses, and governmental agencies from tampering, interference, damage, and unauthorized access to lawfully created computer data and computer systems.
The Legislature finds and declares that the proliferation of computer technology has resulted in a concomitant proliferation of computer crime and other forms of unauthorized access to computers, computer systems, and computer data.
The Legislature further finds and declares that protection of the integrity of all types and forms of lawfully created computers, computer systems, and computer data is vital to the protection of the privacy of individuals as well as to the well-being of financial institutions, business concerns, governmental agencies, and others within this state that lawfully utilize those computers, computer systems, and data.”
It covers a broad spectrum of offenses related to computer hacking, including, but not limited to, the following:
- Altering, damaging, deleting, or destroying a computer, computer system, or data;
- Accessing data without authorization for purposes of fraud, deception, or extortion;
- Illegally copying data;
- Illegally modifying data;
- Introducing viruses or malware or
- Using someone else's profile or Internet presence to communicate or do business without permission.
The specific provision of this law that applies to stealing Wi-Fi is PC 502(c)(3), which makes it a crime to use "computer services" knowingly and without permission. Since Wi-Fi is considered a "computer service," knowingly logging into a Wi-Fi network without authorization is a crime under PC 502.
What Are the Elements of the Crime?
The prosecution must prove certain elements beyond a reasonable doubt to secure a conviction under Penal Code 502 PC. These include the following:
- Unauthorized Access: You must have knowingly accessed a computer, computer system, or network without permission. Using someone else's Wi-Fi network without their consent falls under this category.
- Intent: You must have intended to commit fraud or deceive, extort, wrongfully control, or obtain money, property, or data. For example, it may be more difficult for the prosecution to prove this element if you were merely browsing the internet on a Wi-Fi network you thought was public.
What Are Some Examples?
EXAMPLE 1: Sarah, a tech-savvy college student, lives next door to a coffee shop with a Wi-Fi network that requires a password, which they only give customers. Instead of buying a cup of coffee to get the password, Sarah uses her skills to break the password and gain access to the Wi-Fi network.
Sarah could be charged under PC 502 because she willfully accessed a protected Wi-Fi network without permission from the proprietor.
EXAMPLE 2: John, a professional freelancer residing in an apartment complex, notices his Internet connection is down due to a technical issue with his service provider. Instead of using his mobile data, John browses available Wi-Fi networks. He finds one without password protection and connects to it, assuming it's a public network.
The network belongs to his neighbor. John would likely not be charged under PC 502 because although he accessed the web without permission, he was unaware that it was private, and therefore, his actions were not willful.
What Are the Penalties?
Thus, penalties for stealing Wi-Fi may be more severe than you think, depending on the circumstances of the case and your criminal history. The penalties include the following:
- A misdemeanor conviction may result in up to one year in county jail and a fine of up to $5,000.
- A felony conviction can result in up to three years in state prison and a fine of up to $10,000.
A felony could be charged if you have a prior conviction for this offense; the unauthorized access caused some injury to the owner (damage to computer equipment) that caused them to spend more than $5,000.
What Are the Possible Defenses?
A skilled California criminal defense attorney can employ one of several defense strategies if you're accused of stealing Wi-Fi. These include:
- Lack of Knowledge: You did not knowingly use the Wi-Fi service. Perhaps you were unaware that your device was connected to a private network.
- Lack of Intent: You did not have any fraudulent intent or aim to cause harm. For instance, you may have believed the Wi-Fi network was public.
- Consent: The owner of the Wi-Fi network permitted you to use it.
Contact our California criminal defense attorneys for a case review and to discuss legal options. Eisner Gorin LLP is located in Los Angeles, CA.