Open Wi-Fi networks leave many places for criminals to hide

Efforts against child porn and solicitation are stymied by unsecured Wi-Fi networks where users can't be tracked.

What's happening over that cafe Wi-Fi - maybe even over the very unsecured network you run in your home? Probably nothing. But on some networks people are downloading child porn, soliting kids for sex, and engaging in criminal conspiracies. The Washington Post points to a typical case:

Detectives arrived last summer at a high-rise apartment building in Arlington County, warrant in hand, to nab a suspected pedophile who had traded child pornography online. It was to be a routine, mostly effortless arrest.

But when they pounded on the door, detectives found an elderly woman who, they quickly concluded, had nothing to do with the crime. The real problem was her computer's wireless router, a device sending a signal through her 10-story building and allowing savvy neighbors a free path to the Internet from the privacy of their homes.

While most people taking advantage of free, unsecured wireless are working, checking email, surfing the Web and checking out their friends' MySpace pages, an "increasing number" are engaging in criminal activity, authorities say.

"We're not sure yet how to combat that," said Kevin R. West, a federal agent who oversees the computer crimes unit in North Carolina's State Bureau of Investigation. "Free wireless spots are everywhere, and it makes it easy for people . . . to sit there and do their nefarious acts. The fear is that if we talk about it, people will learn about it and say, 'I can go to a parking lot, and no one will catch me.' But we need to talk about it so that we can figure out how to solve it."

"Unsecured networks are a treasure trove for neighbors," said John Sheehan, program manager of the CyberTipline at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. "Those looking to access illegal content obviously feel they have anonymity" and can get away with it.

Law enforcement incresingly focuses on protecting children and the Internet is tool #1 in the arsenal.

Nationally, 46 multi-jurisdictional Internet Crimes Against Children task forces have been created to carry out online sting operations aimed at ensnaring sex offenders because a man tapping away on a computer in Rockville might very well be soliciting a child in California. Every week, federal and local authorities cast their nets.

... "Technology just makes the park no longer the only place where the pervert goes," West said.

But the use of open Wi-Fi nets makes it virtually impossible for police to nab "perverts."

"This is part of the future . . . and we're working to catch up and educate the public," said Capt. Tommy Turner of the Virginia State Police.

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