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How Failing to Secure Your Wireless Router Can Get You Thrown Facedown On Your Family Room Floor With an Assault Weapon Aimed at Your Head

Getting a Gun Pointed at You For Failing to Secure Your Router
As reported in Reason, at 6:20am seven federal agents broke down the door of a Buffalo homeowner, waking him and his wife. Shouting “pedophile!” and “pornographer!” the federal agents trained their assault weapons on the innocent man. According to the man’s lawyer, Barry Covert, the federal agents basically threw the man down the stairs of his own home, cutting and bruising him along the way “They are screaming at him, ‘Get down! Get down on the ground!’ He’s saying, ‘Who are you? Who are you?’” The federal agents spent two hours searching the man’s computers. Despite failing to find even a single incriminating download, the federal agents, unwilling to admit their mistake, confiscated the man’s computer, iPad and iPhone.

Sorry, But We’ll Probably Just Keep Doing It
A 12 year-old neighbor with an iPhone would have been able to tell what the problem was. The man’s wireless router was unsecured. Someone else, it could have been anyone, had accessed the router from outside of the house and downloaded child pornography. Eventually, U.S. Attorney William Hochul and Immigration and Customs Enforcement Special Agent in Charge Lev Kubiak apologized to the man. Hochul, however, failed to identify any steps the Agency would take to prevent similar attacks on innocent homeowners.

Not an Isolated Case
Federal agents are aware of the problem, yet continue to raid the homes of innocent citizens. In 2006, SWAT team members raided the home of A.J. Nuckols, his wife, and their two children. According to Nuckols, whose only crime was failing to add security to his wireless router (which is not a crime), he was “held at gunpoint, searched, taunted, and led into his house.” In 2009, federal agents entered the home of an innocent North Syracuse, N.Y. man and accused him of downloading child pornography. It turns out the criminal was actually one of the man’s neighbors accessing images through the homeowner’s unsecured wireless router. Last year, agents raided the home of a Sarasota man Malcolm Riddell. Someone in a boat in a marina near Riddell’s home had been accessing Riddell’s unsecured wireless router. Astoundingly, after raiding his home, agents convinced Riddell to allow them put a tracer on his router. The most mind-boggling part of the story is that the innocent homeowner was a lawyer.

The Problem
How do things like this happen? It often requires a combination of oversights. Some of the oversights include:

1) Federal agents who are either too lazy or inept to determine that the Internet Protocol (IP) address is associated with an unsecured wireless router;
2) Courts allowing federal agents with very little evidence to subpoena Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to reveal the names of customers associated with IP addresses;
3) Judges issuing warrants allowing armed federal agents to break down doors and raid the homes of innocent people; and
4) The lack of consequences for judges and federal agents whose failure to investigate the circumstances leads to innocent citizens being assaulted at gunpoint in their own homes.

No Downside For Federal Agents
Do not get me wrong, I think child pornography is a horrible thing, so much so, that I would prefer the huge amounts of time and money federal agents spend conducting raids and assaults on innocent homeowners, be spent tacking down the actual child pornographers. I appreciate that innocent homeowners are easier to catch than child pornographers. Since they not doing anything wrong, innocent homeowners tend to be fairly careless about hiding their location from federal agents. Not surprisingly, child pornographers tend to be a little more difficult to find. Determining that child pornography is being downloaded from an unsecured router, meaning that the downloads could have been initiated by anyone, is a simple manner and should be a clue to even the most clueless federal agent that a little more investigation might be in order before trampling a homeowner’s civil rights. Federal agents simply should not be allowed to be involved in any way in armed raids of homes without adequate training. This seems fairly intuitive. Additionally, there should be severe penalties for raids of innocent homeowners that could have been avoided with a modicum of investigation. For the most egregious mistakes, like the most recent one involving the Buffalo homeowner, the lead agent in charge should be dismissed and compensation (although it is still taxpayer dollars) should be paid to the homeowner assaulted by the agents. Finally, if there is the slightest bit of doubt, federal agents should not break down doors with guns drawn. I am just not aware of any child pornographers defending against a warrant with automatic weapons. Although the protection of federal agents is important, it would be difficult to convince me their safety is increased by bringing seven federal agents to a child pornography raid and drawing down with assault weapons on an unarmed homeowner. Absent extenuating circumstances, two agents, with handguns and body armor should be more than sufficient to determine an innocent homeowner is not a child pornographer. Although it may only take seconds for a child pornographer to delete files, unless the child pornographer has made arrangements beforehand, forensics experts could recover the deleted files. The problem is that I imagine it is much easier convince the homeowner to surrender his/her constitutional rights if you just had a gun to their head.

Demanding Federal Agents Get it Right
(or at least hold off on the military style assaults until they do get it right)

I understand it is harder to do things the right way, but busting down a door, raiding a home, confiscating clean computers and putting innocent homeowners to the ground at gunpoint is not an acceptable alternative to a solid investigation. I understand that child pornographers need to be stopped, but trampling the civil and constitutional rights of innocent homeowners is not the solution. If the child pornographers know that all they have to do to slow federal agents down is use someone else’s wireless network, these types of horrible mistakes will continue. Who do you know that has an unsecured wireless connection? Your mother? Your grandmother? Your child? Demanding a little better better police work, before breaking down an door and drawing a gun on a sleeping homeowner, is not too much to ask.

Brett Trout

Posted in Internet Law. Tagged with .