This is a fascinating story about free WiFi access - and the way it's quite possibly outrun the law:
There is little doubt that when you "piggyback" the WiFi signal you are "accessing" -- or "using the resources of" -- the device that is providing the Internet connection. There's also little doubt that routers, access points and gateways are all computers within the meaning of federal law.
The U.S. federal computer crime statute, Title 18 U.S.C. 1030, makes it a crime to knowingly access a computer used in interstate or foreign communication "without authorization" and obtain any information from the computer. A separate provision makes it a crime to access a computer without authorization with "intent to defraud" to obtain "anything of value." Fortunately, this provision also specifies that it doesn't apply if "the object of the fraud and the thing obtained consists only of the use of the computer and the value of such use is not more than $ 5,000 in any 1-year period."
The article goes on to point out that the law was never written with WiFi access points in mind, and that it's not going to be used that way. Still, it points out how unintended consequences tend to slip through when broadly worded statutes are written up. The thing is, this has broader application than just WiFi and law - companies often have very broadly written policies - where the intent is to stop people from doing something bad. Written broadly enough, do they also stop people from trying anything new? Something to think about the next time you sit down to write up a policy directive.
Back to the legal issues on this. The article points out something really interesting about the fallout from this:
But wait, you say, I didn't knowingly access the computer without authorization -- there was no security on it. How was I supposed to know that I wasn't allowed to access the WiFi connection? Here is the troublesome part: If you accept this argument -- that by broadcasting a connection you are inviting others to share it -- you end up on a slippery slope. How much security must you have on a system in order to be able to prosecute someone for accessing it without authorization?
That is a slippery slope, no mistake. Now translate that to the cable segment you live on if you use the local cable company for internet access - see how easily you can fall off this cliff? Go read the whole thing - it'll start you pondering this mess...