Michigan man dodges prison in theft of Wi-Fi

Man who used a coffee shop's unsecured Wi-Fi to check his e-mail from his car could have faced up to five years in prison.

A Michigan man who used a coffee shop's unsecured Wi-Fi to check his e-mail from his car could have faced up to five years in prison, according to local TV station WOOD. But it seems few in the village of Sparta, Mich., were aware that using an unsecured Wi-Fi connection without the owner's permission--a practice known as piggybacking--was a felony.

Each day around lunch time, Sam Peterson would drive to the Union Street Cafe, park his car and--without actually entering the coffee shop--check his e-mail and surf the Net. His ritual raised the suspicions of Police Chief Andrew Milanowski, who approached him and asked what he was doing. Peterson, probably not realizing that his actions constituted a crime, freely admitted what he was doing.

"I knew that the Union Street had Wi-Fi. I just went down and checked my e-mail and didn't see a problem with that," Peterson told a WOOD reporter.

Milanowski didn't immediately cite or arrest Peterson, mostly because he wasn't certain a crime had been committed. "I had a feeling a law was being broken," the chief said. Milanowski did some research and found Michigan's "Fraudulent access to computers, computer systems, and computer networks" law, a felony punishable by five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

Milanowski, who eventually swore out a warrant for Peterson, doesn't believe Milanowski knew he was breaking the law. "In my opinion, probably not. Most people probably don't."

Indeed, neither did Donna May, the owner of the Union Street Cafe. "I didn't know it was really illegal, either," she told the TV station. "If he would have come in (to the coffee shop), it would have been fine."

But apparently prosecutors were more than aware of the 1979 law, which was revised in 2000 to include protections for Wi-Fi networks.

"This is the first time that we've actually charged it," Kent County Assistant Prosecutor Lynn Hopkins said, adding that "we'd been hoping to dodge this bullet for a while."

However, Peterson won't be going to prison for piggybacking. Because he has no prior record, Peterson will have to pay a $400 fine, do 40 hours of community service and enroll in the county's diversion program.

 

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