I am using the free wireless access at a coffeehouse in Manchester, Vermont to read my emails and came across this Volokh Conspiracy post: Crime to use coffee shop Wi-Fi without entering the coffee shop? It concerns Sam Peterson, a Michigan man who parked outside a coffee shop each day at lunch to go online, without ever entering the shop. The Chief of Police noticed this pattern and approached Peterson to ask what he was doing. Peterson told him that he was using the coffee shop’s Wi-Fi to check his email. After checking the law the Chief obtained a warrant for Peterson’s arrest for obtaining unauthorized access to a computer system. Peterson pled guilty, receiving a $400 fine and 40 hours of community service. The coffee shop’s owner was not aware either that Peterson was using the shop’s Wi-Fi without buying a cup of joe or that such access might constitute a crime.
Was Peterson’s Wi-Fi use illegal? Like the Wi-Fi I am using at the moment the shop’s system was not encrypted or otherwise secured. (I bought a medium cup of coffee and a lemon-poppy muffin.) If the system’s owner takes no steps to control access, is any access unauthorized? The post analyzes the Michigan statute, which is unusual in that it creates a presumption that access is not authorized. It’s worth reading.