“OMG, FREE WIFI HAZARDS!” in the press again, stories contradict the headlines.

A few weeks ago, the Oregonian had a story by Bryan Denson that sounded like a scary example of leaving your wifi open. Then a few days ago, MSNBC had a similar story. The cases involved police tracing distributors of illegal material to an internet service location, and in the media they are commonly and periodically portrayed as one of the risks inherent in operating an open wifi network. The problem is, the scary headlines and stern advice are largely wrong or misleading. And in fact, if you are to actually read the article, the authors of the stories actually say as much.

Let’s take the first example. In this case, the police trace a child-porn sharer to an IP address, and from the IP address to a street address. However, contrary to the fearmongers, the police take the necessary next step. In order to build their case, according to the story, they do NOT assume that their suspect is the owner of the house at that address, but check to see if there is an open wifi network. In fact, they find such a network, identify the source of the illegal images as someone NOT at the service address, but rather someone else nearby. Through good police work, the authorities identify their suspect and arrest them. The story doesn’t mention whether the owner of the house at the IP addresses street address was ever approached at all! So, the text of the story is how dangerous it is to have an open wifi network, and yet fails to actually identify any actual risk!

In the second story, through bad police work in another child-porn case, a house is broken into erroneously by police and the home owner is assaulted because they did NOT do the investigation necessary to identify the actual perpetrator. But of course, the story is NOT about the bad police work, but rather how dangerous it is to have an open wifi network. With incompetent police work, everyone is at risk, not just operators of open wifi networks!

Repeat after me: “an IP address does not equal a person”. The sooner the news media and the police understand that, the sooner the former can begin writing intelligent stories on the subject and the sooner the latter can follow the professional and diligent example of the police in Milwaukie, and avoid the embarrassment of looking incompetent, possibly tipping off the actual perpetrator and risking legitimate lawsuits for assaulting innocent people.

3 Responses to ““OMG, FREE WIFI HAZARDS!” in the press again, stories contradict the headlines.”

  1. Well said Russell! I remember reading about a family that was terrorized when the cops got the wrong house (right number – wrong street, or some such). Locking down your network won’t protect you from stupid or lazy cops.

  2. Yes and No.

    Sure – the article headlines were misleading, but they did point out the *risk* of inappropriate law enforcement response.

    The fact that in one case the risk did not result in negative consequences does not negate the risk.

    Whether that risk is acceptable when weighed against any benefits from an open node requires an individual assessment.

  3. The news articles did a rotten job, notably by not clearly identifying the source of the risk (inappropriate law enforcement response) or, indeed, providing any estimate of the likelihood of the risk (vanishingly small). Any reasonable individual assessment would be based on that information, so the unfortunate readers of these articles are no better able to make such an assessment. In short, the sum total contribution of these articles is to spread fear, whether or not such fear is reasonably justified.

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