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The Privacy Lawyer: Wireless Freeloaders Are Breaking The Law

I love my Sony Vaio PCG-4C1L computer. I bought it for myself as a Christmas gift. People notice it wherever I go. It has a DVD burner, is tiny, and weighs next to nothing. One of the best things about this computer is that it has built-in wireless. Before this, I had to insert a wireless card. But this little powerhouse lets me connect everywhere all the time. I don't need or want Internet access on my handheld. My little computer fits in my purse and weighs less than a bottle of water. I can surf and check E-mail on my main laptop everywhere as easily as on my Treo. More easily, in fact. And that's part of the problem.

I've complained before that I needed one device that would do E-mail, Internet access, cell phone, and organizing. I bought the Treo 600. Now I'm convinced that surfing using a little handheld device isn't the way to go. Connecting wirelessly, while using a computer small and light enough to carry around, is. But there's a small problem ... to be able to connect almost everywhere, at any time, you need to use Wi-Fi networks. And that means other people's unsecured wireless networks.

Last year, someone wrote me a question, asking me about using his father's neighbor's wireless networks when visiting his father. I pontificated that it was wrong to do so, and he should arrange for high-speed access at his father's apartment or go to a Wi-Fi hub to surf. But that was before. Before my new little laptop and my newfound freedom to surf everywhere, whenever I want.

I was doing this happily. Free at last! Like Pinocchio, I have no wires! I am a live girl! And one day, the head Teenangel (from Teenangels.org, the group I founded to help educate kids on online safety, privacy, and security) noticed that I was connected while sitting over a cup of coffee. I proudly showed off my new computer and explained that you can find an open access point just about everywhere. She just looked at me and frowned. "After everything you taught us about cyberethics, you are stealing Internet access?" she charged. (I hate when kids do that!) I stumbled around explaining that no one was being hurt by it and if anyone wanted to lock us out, they could easily do it by securing their wireless network. Her frown didn't alter. "It's stealing!" she pointed out.

I then did what every self-respecting parent and Internet lawyer would do ... I back-pedaled. I explained the legal concept of "any port in a storm" that we learned in law school the first week. Patiently, I taught her that in England a long time ago, wealthy landowners often would refuse to allow people to tie up to their docks. But when a hurricane hit, the courts decided that if it was the choice between people drowning and the property rights of the landowner, the need to preserve life wins. That's where the saying "any port in a storm" came from. I looked up triumphantly. "Understand?"

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