60-Second Tech

Is Wi-Fi Sniffing a Crime?

One court case found that wi-fi sniffing was okay, whereas a different case judged it to be illegal. Larry Greenemeier reports

Most people use public wi-fi in coffee shops and hotels for e-mail and Web surfing without giving security a thought. Anyone trying to sniff or steal our data would surely be breaking the law, right? Well, that depends.

A judge recently okayed the efforts of Innovatio IP Ventures to capture and analyze data packets in certain hotels, coffee shops and other places public wi-fi is available.

nnovatio says it’s protecting itself. It claims to own some wi-fi patents and needs the poached data to support lawsuits against businesses offering customers wireless Internet. So far, the courts are buying Innovatio's argument that sniffing open wi-fi networks is not wiretapping.

Not so for Google, which in 2011 was found to be violating various wiretap laws. A few years ago, the company collected data from home wireless networks to create its Google Maps Street View software. Google tried to argue that the wi-fi broadcasts were readily accessible to the general public, but so far the courts are not buying it.

While the lawyers sort this out, it's best to secure your home network—and be careful when Web surfing at the local Starbucks.

—Larry Greenemeier

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

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