When 17-year-old Garyl Tan Jia Luo piggybacked on his neighbour’s unsecured wireless internet network to chat online, he could not have imagined that in doing so he would make Asian legal history.
Information technology experts and lawyers say Tan was the first in Singapore, and possibly Asia, to be sentenced in court for ”wireless mooching”, or piggybacking on an unsecured wireless network to surf the internet.
A judge in the city-state’s district court sentenced him to 18 months’ probation in January.
Tech-savvy Singapore, one of Asia’s most wired nations, appears to be the regional pioneer in clamping down on wireless network freeloaders, IT experts and lawyers said.
They said they were not aware of similar prosecutions in the Asia-Pacific region, and that only a handful of cases had emerged over the past three years in North America.
”There is no similar criminal case in Hong Kong. And we believe Singapore is quite a pioneer in this area,” said Howard Lau, president of Hong Kong’s Professional Information Security Association, an industry grouping.
The Singapore case may set a precedent in Asia and ”open the floodgates for similar prosecutions”, said Aloysious Cheang, president of the Special Interest Group in Security and Information Integrity, a Singapore information and communications security association.
Moochers make up an estimated five to 10% of the region’s wireless traffic at any time, said Bernie Trudel, principal security consultant at network firm Cisco Systems Asia Pacific, which supplies networking equipment through its Linksys division.
Residential wireless networks are more vulnerable to piggybackers than corporate networks because only about 40 to 50% of home networks are secured, compared with 80 to 90% for corporate users, Trudel said.
Bryan Tan, a lawyer specialising in IT law at Keystone Law Corporation in Singapore, said one of the few cases similar to Garyl Tan’s occurred in Florida.
According to a report in the St Petersburg Times newspaper, a 41-year-old man was charged in April 2005 with unauthorised access of a computer network. He was arrested for accessing the internet using a homeowner’s wireless network on a laptop while parked outside.
In Singapore, Garyl Tan was charged under Singapore’s Computer Misuse Act for securing access without authority to a computer for the purpose of obtaining computer services.
Tan got probation, but conviction could have brought him up to three years’ imprisonment, a $6 490 fine, or both.
Although wireless mooching is not unusual across Asia, prosecutions are uncommon for several reasons, said lawyers who specialise in information technology law. They cited the low priority placed on mooching offences, the difficulty in tracking offenders and an absence of laws against piggybacking.
”I would not say that the act of piggybacking is unusual. It is the prosecution of it that is unusual … taking action against an individual who is piggybacking without the intention to cause any harm is not a pressing criminal matter for most countries,” said Cyril Chua, partner at law firm Alban Tay Mahtani and de Silva in Singapore.
Countries may place a lower priority on wireless mooching than on hacking and more severe technology-related crimes, Chua added.
Unlike Singapore, some may not even have clear laws prohibiting wireless piggybacking, he said.
”While there are laws in Hong Kong and South Korea relating to unauthorised access to computer systems like hacking, I couldn’t find any laws prohibiting Wi-Fi piggybacking,” he said.
Under Hong Kong’s Telecommunications Ordinance, any person who knowingly causes a computer to obtain unauthorised access to any programme or data held in a computer, is liable on conviction to a fine of $2 560.
Chua said the Hong Kong provision is essentially against hacking rather than wireless mooching, which involves unauthorised access to a network.
Even in countries where wireless piggybacking is outlawed, enforcement is difficult, said Tan, the Singapore lawyer.
”And the reason for that is that the sheer number of Wi-Fi networks used at homes is so large and typically are not monitored by experts. Therefore, it would be difficult to identify whether unauthorised access has taken place,” he said.
Home users who pay for unlimited internet access would also not be bothered if others tap into their bandwidth, he said.
”So we typically see prosecution when related to other crimes which cause harm,” he said.
Less than a month after Tan’s sentencing, a 21-year-old man was in court for another Singapore case related to wireless mooching.
But Lin Zhenghuang was sentenced to three months’ imprisonment and fined $2 614. He had posted an online bomb hoax while piggybacking on a neighbour’s wireless network.
A Singapore police spokesman said that they ”do not specifically track offences involving Wi-Fi” but do investigate ”any allegation of crime as and when it is reported”.
Garyl Tan’s arrest followed a public complaint. Court documents said a passer-by called police because he was suspicious of the teenager sitting by the road using his laptop late at night.
Chua said many freeloaders regard the act as harmless, while others may not even be aware they are committing an offence.
”The most common perception is that the crime is virtually victimless as the ‘victim’ merely suffers a minor drop in internet speed,” he said.
There is little publicity about illegal mooching, and the piggybacking can happen easily because computers sometimes automatically search for the strongest signal, he said.
”Even the user may not be aware when the piggybacking is happening, let alone [that he is] committing a crime,” Chua said.
Garyl Tan’s prosecution came as the government seeks to broaden legitimate Wi-Fi access.
Singapore had about 779 000 broadband subscribers in January 2007, while household broadband penetration was 62,8%, according to government figures. The city-state has a population of about 4,4-million.
Wireless connectivity is currently available in Singapore homes, offices and schools but the government recently said Singapore would offer free wireless broadband service in public areas starting this year.
The programme would increase the number of wireless hotspots from 900 to 5 000 over two years, said the government, which also aims for the city-state to have 90% home broadband usage by 2015.
As Singapore moves towards its goal of becoming a centre of the information-technology sector, its stance against wireless moochers is designed to ensure public confidence in the technology infrastructure, said Chua.
”From a policy standpoint, Singapore prides itself as an IT hub and as such, any reported digital crime would have to be prosecuted,” he said, while noting Garyl Tan’s case resulted from a complaint which authorities were bound to investigate.
But with the worldwide spread of wireless technology, the Singapore lawyer Tan said he expects more cases of wireless piggybacking to reach the courts.
”There are millions of Wi-Fi networks around the world and it is only a matter of time and evidence before more cases surface,” Tan said.
Garyl Tan’s case has emphasised the need for tighter wireless network security, said Daniel Seng, a lecturer specialising in IT law at the National University of Singapore.
”The case heightens awareness about wireless security,” he said.
None of that was on Garyl Tan’s mind when he sat on the kerb outside his home at about 2am on May 13 last year.
A computer games addict, he had gone outside to piggyback onto any available wireless network because his mother had confiscated his computer modem, said his lawyer Sam Koh. – Sapa-AFP