Back in 2010 I blogged about Google’s legal troubles over capturing sensitive open Wi-Fi data with their Street View cars. In a nutshell, Google was accused of violating the federal Wiretap Act when it intercepted the data on open Wi-Fi networks it passed. The purpose was to capture just the MAC addresses of the base stations to improve their enhanced location services. It appears that recording small amounts of data was accidental. Certainly if they were trying to collect data, they could easily have grabbed much more.
Google lost that case and is now appealing to the Supreme Court, hoping to overturn the decision.
Obviously it was inappropriate for a company like Google to drive around sniffing people’s Wi-Fi traffic, but they are not really the threat. What we all need to be worried about is hackers war driving our neighborhoods, either using our networks to hide their illegal activities, or capturing our personal information for their own purposes.
Whatever the legal outcome of whether it is “OK” to sniff someone’s open Wi-Fi traffic, the reality is that people do, and doing so is trivial. Anyone with a laptop can download free software and be sucking down all the Internet activity in their local coffee shop in just minutes. I think laws like this give a false sense of security. It is like saying that, as you walk down the sidewalk, you can not look in through your neighbor’s big picture window at night when they leave the curtains open.
Thinking that people are “not allowed” to sniff your open Wi-Fi just gives a false sense of security. What we need to do is make sure that ALL Wi-Fi is securely encrypted. Even public Wi-Fi should be encrypted, even if the password is “password” and is posted prominently on the wall. Using encryption changes the situation from looking though a window as you walk by to drilling a peep hole through the wall.
None of should be in denial about this. Open Wi-Fi is insecure. It will be sniffed.
If you find yourself in a situation where you have to use an open Wi-Fi hotspot, for whatever reason, make sure you immediately establish a VPN to protect yourself. I might be biased, but I use Anonymizer Universal for this purpose.