ISP: Wi-Fi test shows flaw in file-sharing crackdown

TalkTalk says its street-level Wi-Fi hacking test shows proposals to disconnect unlawful file-sharers could end up affecting innocent people
Written by Tom Espiner, Contributor

TalkTalk has criticised the government's proposals to cut off broadband service for unlawful file-sharers, after conducting a street-level test that found a high proportion of household Wi-Fi connections are vulnerable to hacking.

In a blog post on Thursday, TalkTalk executive director of strategy and regulation Andrew Heaney gave details of how a TalkTalk security expert visited a road in Stanmore, Middlesex, to gauge how many houses were using either unsecured Wi-Fi or the WEP encryption protocol, a weak form of encryption.

The test found that out of 68 Wi-Fi connections, 23 were open to hacking. Six percent of the total were unsecured, while 28 percent used WEP.

"To show how vulnerable people are to unauthorised file-sharing, our expert downloaded legal music files from two connections, including Barry Manilow's hit Mandy and the soundtrack from the 1992 film Peter's Friends," wrote Heaney.

The ISP said the experiment suggested millions of people are at risk of having their connections hijacked by hackers for the purposes of illegal file-sharing. Those millions are therefore also at risk of having their internet service cut, should government proposals to deal with suspected unauthorised file-sharers be carried through, as it would appear they had breached copyright, TalkTalk said.

Lord Mandelson's Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) proposed in August that those accused of illegal file-sharing be disconnected. The proposal contradicted advice given in Lord Carter's June Digital Britain report, which said cutting off services would be too harsh a measure.

"The Mandelson scheme is wrong-headed and naïve," TalkTalk's Heaney wrote. "The lack of presumption of innocence and the absence of judicial process, combined with the prevalence of Wi-Fi hijacking, will result in innocent people being disconnected."

The ISP also said the government's proposals would encourage illicit file-sharers to hack Wi-Fi networks, to avoid their own connection being cut off.

The TalkTalk criticism came as an influential government committee also raised objection to the government plans. The All Party Parliamentary Communications Group (apComms) wrote in a report on Thursday that illegal file-sharers should not have their broadband cut off.

"Much of the problem with illegal sharing of copyrighted material has been caused by the rights holders, and the music industry in particular, being far too slow in getting its act together and making popular legal alternatives available," said the report. "Future policy... should not include the disconnection of end users, because this is not in the slightest bit consistent with policies that attempt to promote e-government."

A BIS spokesperson said in an email statement on Friday that the government would only suspend unauthorised file-sharers if notification and "targeted legal action" had not been effective.

"It is important to emphasise that we still believe the notification system backed with court action will prove the most effective way to bring about the reduction in file-sharing we want to see," said the BIS spokesperson.

"We are a long way from introducing suspension and, even if we did, it would only be used as a last resort against the worst and most persistent offenders."

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