If you use WiFi at home, you're probably familiar with the idea of neighbors and friends logging into your network. Some people even leave their wireless network open, or have a secondary network setup that does not require a password. This is what they do at your local coffee shop, Denny's, and countless other locations across the country. This has caused problems in the past. The case of Ira Milan in Evansville, Indiana comes immediately to mind.
In June of 2012 police responded to threats that were posted online from Milan's IP address. Armed in full tactical gear, SWAT stormed the house with the press in tow. Much to their embarrassment, they discovered nothing threatening at the residence. Further investigation led them next door, where a teenage boy with a smart phone admitted he had connected to Milan's network, even though he denied posting the idle threats.
The legal system has recognized that a IP address does not identify an individual. So even though your Internet Service provider can identify the fact that your residence was assigned an IP address, that alone is not enough to take you to court. This is why police will seize a computer at the scene of the crime, to search for information on it that can help them build a good case against a suspect.
This process is used most frequently to go after bootleggers, hackers, and people who distribute or download illegal pornography.
Now, however, police have a new tool to help them determine whether a specific network is being used by someone other than the person who lives at a specific residence. Using a dirctional antenna and a software program called "Moocherhunter" law enforcement officers can track down exactly where the computer connected to a WiFi Network is located. It stands to reason that in order to find the computer, it must be on and logged into the network. If this is the case, police can quickly find all the systems in question, which will give them enough information to obtain a search warrant.
The process is in its earliest stages, but it is not too difficult to imagine a hand-held device will be available soon that will be able to track the direction and signal strength for the police. In other words, the days of being able to hide behind someone else's IP address are rapidly coming to a close.
Of course, the easiest way to protect yourself from having to deal with this sort of problem is to secure your WiFi network with encryption and a password. (For a great primer on the basics of protecting your wireless network, check out Bradley Mitchell's 10 Tips for Wireless Network Home Security.) If someone can't login to your WiFi network, you will never have to worry about the police, unless you're doing something illegal.
Overall, this is really a good thing when it comes to personal privacy. One of the key ingredients to privacy protection is making sure that you are really who you say you are. If the placer able to differentiate between you and someone else who has logged into your WiFi network, most of us are going to sleep a lot easier at night.
While we are on the subject of open WiFi networks, be cautious when trying to log into a WiFi hot spot that you do not own. If you do not have to put a password in, nobody else does, either. So whatever information you send across an open network like that may very well be seen by somebody else. This would not be a good place to login to your bank account, or check your Social Security statement online.
The thrill that technology brings us usually comes with a price tag. If it is easier for us to access our lives, is also easier for someone else to access them. So it's nice to see that the people we entrust with protecting our peace of mind can adapt along with the rest of us, and bring technology right back to a criminal's front door.