Accidental Wi-Fi access still a criminal offense in Maryland

If you're sitting on a coffee shop patio with your laptop, and you find out later that you happen to be accessing the Wi-Fi from the attorney's office upstairs by accident, should you go to prison? A Maryland legislator says no, but his bill is facing opposition.

A bill introduced by a Maryland state delegate that would hold users innocent when they accidentally access the Wi-Fi services of portals other than the one they think they're logged onto, faces trouble today after an unfavorable report to the state's House Judiciary Committee.

Apparently, a June 2007 Fox News story about a Michigan man fined and put on probation for accessing a Wi-Fi network while parked outside a coffee shop rather than from inside it, got Maryland Delegate LeRoy E. Myers, Jr., thinking about whether such an act truly deserves criminalization. Last month, Myers and six co-sponsors introduced substitute legislation that would adjust Maryland law to make it clear that a wireless trespasser has to know he's a trespasser.

As state law currently reads, "A person may not intentionally, willfully, and without authorization access, attempt to access, cause to be accessed, or exceed the person's authorized access to all or part of a computer network, computer control language, computer, computer software, computer system, computer services, or computer database." (PDF available here)

Under the Myers bill, a separate clause would be written for wireless Internet access, copying the same basic text from the above paragraph, but adding the condition, "with knowledge that the access is unauthorized and prohibited by law."

A fiscal policy note from the State House of Delegates notes that one potential impact of the bill, however minor, would be a minor increase in state revenue due to improved penalty provisions for offenders, including those who access Wi-Fi portals and know they shouldn't.

Part of the confusion may have arisen from recent reports that interpreted the Myers bill as criminalizing Wi-Fi access -- reports that made their way through the Internet via Digg and other aggregators -- when in fact the bill is actually attempting to relax the state's current restrictions.

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