Michigan police were called at a Planet Fitness gym earlier this month to investigate a bomb threat that ended up being only a prank after a naughty user named his WiFi network “Remote Detonator.”
The gym patron spotted the suspicious WiFi network name and called the police, following the gym’s normal procedures. The gym re-opened the same day, three hours later, after bomb-sniffing dogs swept the building without finding any explosive devices.
“Everything is perfectly legal from a police standpoint,” Saginaw Township Police Chief Donald Pussehl told a local paper.
“There was no crime or threat. No call saying there was a bomb,” the chief said, revealing there would be no legal repercussions on the prankster, as the WiFi name falls under what is considered “protected speech” under the First Amendment.
WiFi network names and the First Amendment
But we at Bleeping Computer wanted to confirm the Saginaw Township Police Chief’s statement and discover if WiFi network names do really fall under the First Amendment. So we asked one of the leading law firms specialized in free speech cases, the Walters Law Group, the firm behind the FirstAmendment.com website.
“All speech that is intended to convey a message is presumed to be protected by the First Amendment,” a spokesperson for the Walters Law Group told Bleeping Computer earlier this week via email.
“This can get complicated with identifiers like telephone numbers, addresses, or domain names, which typically do not enjoy First Amendment protection,” the spokesperson said. “But there are exceptions.”
“A domain name could be both convey a message and identify a location at the same time. The same goes for a WiFi network name,” he said. “While typically used to identify a network, the chosen name could be used to convey a message of humor, politics, or even danger.”
There are limitations to WiFi network names
“While I am aware of no case that specifically addresses WiFi network names, I believe that each situation would turn on the facts, to determine whether the First Amendment applied,” the spokesperson told us regarding cases where pranksters take WiFi network naming a little bit too far.
Situations like these happened in the past. For example, in 2016, a passenger on a Qantas flight had named his WiFi hotspot “Mobile Detonation Device,” which grounded a flight for hours before it was cleared to take off.
In 2017, a Turkish Airlines airplane made an emergency landing at a Sudan airport after a passenger discovered a WiFi network created by another passenger named “Bomb on board.”
Individuals can create personal WiFi networks on devices such as laptops and mobile phones, and name them what they want. Authorities weren’t able to identify any of the pranksters behind the 2016 and 2017 incidents.
But pranks like these, in places like airplanes and airports, can lead to legal consequences, despite being just jokes.
“Even if constitutional protection was afforded, there are limits imposed on speech which constitutes a true threat, or incites imminent lawless action,” the Walters Law Group spokesperson said. “But the simple naming of a WiFi network would not likely rise to the level of a threat or incitement.”
So, all in all, the First Amendment does apply to WiFi network names. You can use them to convey a message, as long as you don’t use them for threats.
Nonetheless, it’s an extremely bad idea to name a WiFi network “detonation device” on an airplane, because if identified, you can still stand criminal charges or a civil lawsuit from the airline wanting to recoup losses from lost business caused by flight delays. In the end, the DBAD rule applies.