End of Story

So, I’ll look into talking with the library and Information Bureau folks about the Nantucket Wifi Fiasco. For now, though, it’s just another “this could happen to you” story.

Thanks for the advice and feedback. As a final sidenote, I war-walked to the Nantucket Bake Shop (contending against Downyflake for Best Native Doughnuts on Nantucket), and hit about twenty access points between the studio and the bake shop. All were closed, which sample begins to suggest that Nantucketers know how to close access points that they want to keep closed, and how to leave open access points that they want to share.

Late-breaking news: The Atheneum has just now posted a policy stating that the wifi connection is available only between a half-hour after they open to a half-hour before they close, on days that they’re open. The stated reason is “for better maintenance and operation.” Case closed.

Ironies Never Cease

My mom gave me a copy of a local promotional magazine last night at dinner (with Holly, my sister, and Jennifer, who came over for a couple of days with Pip and me before her Ph.D. program begins — with Margaret’s Ph.D. studies at Duke, Jennifer’s at Union Seminary/NY, and Nate’s plans for advanced study in music, we’re a one-family faculty meeting, or unemployment line, depending on how dire the hiring situation is a few years from now).
Anyway, featured on the cover of N magazine (I can’t find reference to a web site for the print edition, though it gives a URI for its society pages — I don’t know any of the beautiful people I see there), nestled in with stories about why Bush should be re-elected to protect small businesses, on local painters, and on what Livingston Taylor is up to these days, is a story on — wardriving (without using that word). “Wi-fi Hotspots,” the cover announces, and the story narrates the author’s experience of wardriving the eastern end of the island and finding a hundred or so open APs, some of which he names.


The author — whom I will not name here, since he’s in grave danger of being identified not only as a felon himself, but as contributing to a crime wave of felonious Net surfing, observes,

In all, we discovered over 100 wireless access points. . . . We checked about half of them, and over 20 were open and accessible. I’ve included several secret hotspots in the sidebar. But not all of them. If I list all of my favorite wireless access points, the owners of those hotspots will get wise and shut them down. And then where will I be?

Well, maybe in federal prison, sir.

So, as I recapitulate the last two days’ events, I’ve been instructed by a uniformed police officer not to use my laptop at all within wireless range of the public library of which I am a card-holding member, at the same time an ultra-glossy tourist magazine promotes leeching the signals from private citizens and only mentions the library’s access point at the very bottom of the sidebar accompanying the article.

(I’ll leave out any questions about editors who let this writer get away with the sentence fragment in the middle of the paragraph, and the notion of printing the location of a “secret hotspot” in 18-point display type in a featured sidebar.)

At the same time, the article begins with a boldface caution: “Although some wi-fi networks are intended for public use, whether freely or with varying fees, unauthorized access to private networks [which is what the article to follow specifrically narrates] might be considered criminal theft akin to stealing signals from cable television connections [that comparison seems to be doing a lot of work in this discourse]. . . .”

So the magazine says, in effect, “Don’t do this — here’s how to do it, and where, and it’s fun and cool.” I feel like that turtle in the old cartoons, who stumbles into some mire of folly, and beseeches his magico-scientific wizard mentor to save him: “Help me, Prof. Lessig!”

For Clarity’s Sake

A) I’ve posted some images relative to my close encounter with a e-felony rap at flickr, of which I’ll link to a couple from here.

B) I’m in Nantucket, Massachusetts, not at my home in Illinois — and I don’t know whether Mass has different state law from Illinois (that’s one reason I asked). However you slice it, my police informant (so to speak) emphasized that this is a federal offense.

The Bench

C) The library was closed at the time, or else I’d have gone ahead in to finish my surfing.

D) The signal was open. I did not use super-h4x0r powers to defeat any form of encryption, protection, or enclosure. If there’s a law against defeating security features, I would understand that. I might not support such a law, depending on how it was written; such a law sounds to me like ill-advised defensive anti-geek legislation, but I would absolutely understand the notion of a law saying that I ought not be permitted to circumvent the library’s security measures if they wanted to prevent me from using their wireless.

Atheneum Exterior

Might this be an obscure, malignant side effect of the DMCA’s anti-circumvention stipulations? Even though I wasn’t circumventing anything?

Three signals in my limited range (TiBooks have notoriously poor reception) had entirely open signals. One was the library’s. Moreover, the library staff evidently knew how to protect a signal, because they manage an encrypted, protected access point, too.

I didn’t hack. I opened my tiBook, and three happy lines appeared, Mail.app started checking my mail, and NetNewsWire posted my entries.

E) This is not a cause for which I’m ready to be a martyr. I’ve got one of those, but this isn’t it.

F) This is what bothers me the most, I think. The officer in question requested — with a grim law-enforcement professional’s demeanor — that I not use my laptop in the vicinity of the library, since that opened the possibility that I might be connecting surreptitiously.

So although it’s legal to use a wifi-capable computer within 100 feet of an 802.11b access point (further for an 802.11g AP), the police feel free to discourage using a computer lest it might pick up an illicit packet. If you’re going to take that approach to alw enforcement, though, wouldn’t it be fairer and friendlier to put up “No Laptop Zone” signs? There might be other open wireless signals around town; am I not allowed to operate my laptop in range of any of them? Isn’t this a rather overblown, silly way of effecting the stated goal of protecting access-point owners from unwelcome intrusion and unjust liability?

G) My mom (a local year-rounder) thinks this all may be because John Kerry visits the island (Not an anti-Kerry sentiment, just an observation of the way the Secret Service population fluctuates).

So Weirdly Wrong

A few minutes ago, a police officer passed the bench where I was sitting outside the [edit: Nantucket] Athenaeum, enjoying the mild temperature and the wifi signal, and he said, “Sir, you can’t use the Internet outside the library.”

I said, “What?” (I’m pretty clever under pressure.)

The officer in question (whose conduct was entirely professional, firm, and calm behind those mirrored shades) solemnly assured me that in order to use the library’s open wireless signal, I had to be seated within the library. The officer then wandered on back to the nearby police station.

I dutifully, if reluctantly, turned off the power to my Airport card and, since I had only been on the bench a few minutes, began working — offline — on what turns out to be this post. I had noticed two other weak but open signals in the area, and I figured that I could post this perplexing moment via one of the other open signals, then scuttle back to the studio. As I was writing, the officer returned and — as the officer walked straight for me — I held up my TiBook, pointing to the zero lines in the Airport icon, and showed the officer that my card was off.

“Why don’t you just close that up, sir, or use your computer elsewhere?’

I closed the computer in order not to constitute a threat to established order, but engaged this peace officer in a discussion of the complexities of the topic. “I did notice several other open signals in the area — am I allowed to connect to them?”

“Maybe if you had permission it would be all right, but it’s a new law, sir; ‘theft of signal.’ It would be like if you stole someone’s cable TV connection.”

I responded, “But this is a radio signal thing — it’s not like a cable connection, it’s like someone has a porch light on and I’m sitting on the bench, reading a book by their light. I’m not stealing their light.”

“It’s a law, sir; if someone comes along and downloads child photography (that wasn’t the exact word the officer used) and it goes through their [sc., the access point owner’s] connection, that’s a violation and we’ve had cases of that. That’s a felony.”

(I skip the question of whether it’s less a problem if someone downloads such photos while sitting in the library. Since I’ve already been categorized, however politely, with felons, I thought discretion should prevail at this point.) “Is this a state law?” I asked.

“It’s a federal law, sir; a Secret Service agent came and explained it to us.”

“Look, I don’t want to give you a hard time, and I’m very thankful that you alerted me to this, and I’ve done what you asked, but I’d be very surprised if there turned out to be a federal law forbidding my using an open wireless signal in a public place.”

“Well, you can look it up, sir, and explain it to the chief. . . .”

At this point, it became clear that my uniformed interlocutor had to head in a different direction from me, so we shook hands and parted. And I walked back to the studio, dumbfounded that someone just rousted me for picking an open wireless signal in public — indeed (as it turns out) for using a laptop within a wireless signal’s range of the library. Weird.

posted from a secure hiding place near an open access point. . . .

[Rest of story: here, here, here, here, and if you haven’t seen Gary Turner’s coverage go here too.]