Friday, May 28, 2010

Computers, Wireless Networks, the Internet and the Law

Wireless routers have enabled computer users to "unplug" and access the internet from anywhere within the router's range. This range continues to increase as technology advances and the use of range boosters becomes more widespread. For example, there are systems available for farmers that allow the range of their wireless router to extend to approximately two miles. For the typical user, it is sufficient if the range extends to all areas of the home.

Accessing the Internet by way of a wireless router provides the user with the freedom and convenience of mobility. However, if precautions are not taken, there are risks associated with the use of a wireless router. First, the signal from most modern wireless networks extends beyond the boundaries of a particular residence. This means that neighbors may be utilizing your WiFI network, if it is left unsecure and open. This may seem harmless at first. However, it can lead to disasterous consequences.

In this Blog I will limit my discussion to the possible criminal exposure one might encounter when operating a wireless network that is unsecured. As a criminal defense lawyer, I have represented many citizen's who have had their homes raided by law enforcement, pursuant to a search warrant. Law enforcement removes all of the person's computers and data storage devices pursuant to the warrant and informs the person that they are under investigation for an Internet or computer crime. The crimes range anywhere from Fraud and Theft, to Pandering Obscenity. Obviously, this causes serious problems for the person whose home has been raided. First, the neighbors will question why all the police were outside the home. The allegations alone may cause the person to lose relationships with family or friends. Further, the person is obviously left without his or her computers and whatever other data storage devices law enforcement confiscated, including but not limited to cell phones and digital cameras. Finally, the person, if innocent of any wrongdoing, will obviously be left frustrated and left guessing as to why his or her home was raided and what is going to happen next.

As I discussed in a previous Blog concerning search warrants and computers, there is often a lapse of time between the execution of a search warrant and the completion of the forensic investigation by law enforcement. Depending upon how many computers are removed from the home, the lapse between the search and the results of the investigation can span a period of many months. this is obviously a discouraging time for a citizen who has not committed a crime.

How does this happen? If you fail to limit access to your wireless network by securing it and taking proper precautions, you run the risk that someone else may utilize your network to access the Internet. This seems relatively harmless, however, if that unauthorized user engages in criminal activity via your Internet connection, you will likely be the person targeted at the beginning of the investigation. Law enforcement will typically identify an IP address and trace it back to the Internet subscriber by issuing a subpoena to the Internet Service Provider (ISP). The ISP will comply with the Subpoena and provide law enforcement with the name and address of the person that pays the bills for a particualr IP address. It is that person that will then likely be subject to a search warrant execution, even if that person did not engage in any wrongdoing.

What to do? Make sure that your wireless network is secure as possible. If you do not have the time or inclination to review all of the manuals that come with your router, I recommend consulting with a technician who specializes in this area. Fortunately, occurances such as this are rare and in many cases, where a client has been subject to a search warrant because of the wrongdoing of others, the forensic examination by law enforcement can sometimes lead them to conclude that there was no evidence of wrongdoing by the client. Unfortunately, although law enforcement may ultimately catch the person who committed the worngdoing, at that point, much damage to the innocent client may already have been done.

In sum, secure your wireless networks. If you or someone you know has been subject to a search warrant execution and would like to discuss the matter in greater detail with a criminal defense lawyer, please feel free to contact me for a free initial consultation at (440)537-0299.