Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Share your Wi-Fi, go to jail

Posted by metaphorical on 8 February 2007

Okay, that’s an exaggeration. You’ll pay a fine, not go to jail.

Westchester County has a law against owning an open Wi-Fi hotspot. While it’s great that it doesn’t have a law against using an open hotspot, this law nonetheless seems out of line.

Last month Network World reported on this and a similar law in California.

Mounting worries about the dangers of too-easy access to wireless LANs have prompted government officials in New York and California to put new laws on the books aimed at preventing network “piggybacking” and exposure of sensitive data in both businesses and homes.

Last October, the local government in Westchester County, N.Y., began enforcing a countywide law requiring all commercial businesses to secure their WLAN access or face fines.

The law, which has the Westchester IT department periodically driving about the county with WLAN probes to test whether businesses have failed to adequately secure their WLANs, was enacted because “we saw piggybacking on Wi-Fi nets,” says county CIO Norm Jacknis. “On these networks, there’s unfettered access to confidential data, and we have a problem with that.”

I don’t know which is more outrageous, that Westchester County would have such a law, or that Network World lets such statements through, apparently unchallenged.

I heard tonight that South African history doesn’t include personal narratives of their slavery era the way the U.S. has because at the time, there was only one printing press in the whole country, and it was thoroughly in the control of the head of state. Westchester’s absurd (and hopefully unconstitutional) law seems like a heavy-handed attempt to ever so slightly diminish our access to the universal printing press of our time.

I sent the following letter today:

Information Technology
Norman Jacknis
Chief Information Officer
Westchester County Department of Information Technology
Phone: 914-995-2976
E-mail: cio1@westchestergov.com

Mr Jacknis,

I understand Westchester County now has a law against open business Wi-Fi connections.

You were quoted recently in Network World magazine as saying, “We saw piggybacking on Wi-Fi nets. On these networks, there’s unfettered access to confidential data, and we have a problem with that.”

Can I ask, with all due respect, what the county’s problem with that is? Leaving aside the question of whether each and every business with a Wi-Fi router has confidential data, isn’t it up to the business to take measures against access to confidential data? Dumpsters provide unfettered access to confidential data, if someone dumps confidential data into them. Leaving aside the question of whether all businesses with dumpsters have confidential data, does Westchester County have a law against accessing dumpsters?

Some businesses maintain open Wi-Fi connections but place them outside the company’s firewall. Such companies would say, one would imagine, that though they have open Wi-Fi connections, and though they have confidential data, the data isn’t accessible to anyone who was simply using the open hotspot. Are the county’s IT police able to distinguish this situation and not issue a fine? How do they do that?

Thanks in advance for any light you can shed on some puzzling statements.


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