Is using a wireless network without permission a criminal offence?

United Kingdom

In a word, “yes”. A man was fined £500 and received a 12-month conditional discharge for using a wireless broadband connection without permission. Reports suggest that the accused was found in a residential area using a laptop to access the wireless broadband connection of a local resident.

No transcript of the case is available, but according to press reports the man was prosecuted for two crimes under sections 125 and 126 of the Communications Act 2003. Section 125(1) makes it an offence to dishonestly obtain an electronic communications service with the intent of avoiding the payment of a charge applicable to the provision of that service. Section 126(1) makes it an offence to possess, with the intention of obtaining an electronic communications service dishonestly, anything which may be used for obtaining an electronic communications service.

Gaining unauthorised access to a computer is an offence under the Computer Misuse Act 1990 (CMA). However, the present wording of the CMA requires “an intent to secure access to any program or data”. If a wireless network is only used to obtain access to the Internet, it is arguable that there has been no intent to access programs or data on a computer, as such. This may explain why the prosecution brought charges under the Communications Act in this case.

This article first appeared in our Technology Annual Review, March 2006. To view this publication, please click here to open in a new window.