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Wireless Internet access is the latest must-have technology inside courtrooms, but some courthouse administrators admit they installed the gear understanding very few of the pitfalls. For instance, at the recently concluded trial of double murderer Scott Peterson, a savvy TV news reporter used the courthouse wireless network to bend, but not break, the media rules set by the presiding judge, Alfred Delucchi. While short of broadcasting a video image of the proceedings, which was banned, the reporter did cause a stir by supplying a live, text account of the proceedings. The judge’s staffers later said they’d been outfoxed. “After Delucchi banned cameras in the courtroom, we asked ourselves, ‘how can we do this and still put on a good product?’” said Dan Weiser, news director of TV station KCRA-TV in Sacramento, whose reporter used the court’s Wi-Fi network to paint the word picture for viewers. “The technology was there, so we did it.” Peggy Thompson, executive officer of the San Mateo County Superior Court, said the incident illustrated just how much she and other court administrators don’t understand the dangers associated with the wireless networks they’re embracing. Freely available software lets laptops make phone and videophone calls over the Internet — and could easily be used for a guerilla broadcast of courtroom events, as they unfold, to anyone with a Web connection. Jurors in jury assembly rooms are encouraged to use the wireless network to pass the time on the Internet — but they could easily download illegal copies of music or movies. And because the networks create wireless zones that are hundreds of feet long, someone outside the courthouse could be logged on and up to no good. “In my life, I would have never thought you could do any of that,” Thompson said. “When we put the wireless network in about two years ago, we didn’t think anybody would even use it.” Of the courts that built wireless networks, some experts estimate about half are in the same predicament as San Mateo County, in that they installed the technology with the best of intentions, but only afterward realize the Pandora’s box of problems they have opened. However, some courts are upgrading to more sophisticated wireless hardware and are using better systems integrators, and many court administrators are urging judges to create rules about how and when courtroom visitors can use the networks. “Courts in general don’t have a good policy on this,” said Michael Overing, an adjunct professor of Internet law at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Journalism. No one is dismissing the benefits of wireless networks for courts, especially ones with heavy caseloads. Known informally as Wi-Fi, or wireless fidelity, a single Wi-Fi wireless access point creates zones up to 300 feet in area, in which laptops and PDAs can access the Internet at very fast speeds and without having to plug into anything. Courts turning to Wi-Fi will spend about three times less to outfit every office, desk and courtroom with Internet access than if they used traditional wired means, according to Tom Racca, a vice president of Chantry Networks in Waltham, Mass. With more employees using the Internet, productivity is increasing and cases are making their way through the system much quicker. But court administrators now realize that wireless networks also have downsides. “Technology develops so quickly, and some people just don’t realize what it can do,” said a spokesman for the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, the administrative arm of the federal judiciary. Courts can solve Wi-Fi headaches using a number of options. The most expensive results in state-of-the-art wireless networks such as the one the Bernalillo Metropolitan Courthouse in Albuquerque, N.M., installed when it built a new courthouse two years ago. The wireless network, supplied by Boulder, Colo., firm SpectraLink Corp. and Chantry Networks, doles out Internet access depending on access privileges and where someone is in the courthouse, and also blocks transmissions of instant messages, e-mails or other kinds of Internet data, said Paul Roybal, the court’s chief information officer. “We built this place from the ground up, and adding wireless was one of the easiest things we did,” Roybal said. A less expensive route, and better if you’ve already added a wireless network, is to ban, or further restrict, where laptops and other Internet-enabled devices are allowed in courthouses. Some courts let lawyers and other parties to a case use their laptops inside a courtroom, while members of the public cannot. At the Peterson trial, Delucchi allowed reporters to use their laptops, ostensibly to take more accurate notes. That probably won’t happen again in Delucchi’s courtroom and may cause other San Mateo County judges to clamp down on courtroom laptop use, Thompson said. Also, according to Chantry Networks’ Tom Racca, some courts don’t realize that the access points they’ve installed have built-in security measures to shield the data being transmitted, and require a password to log on. Typically, the Wi-Fi access points are shipped with such security measures turned off. “It’s easy enough just to turn these things back on,” he said. But these are only Band-Aids that in some cases won’t stop experienced hackers, or control just what those on the network can do. That takes a much more expensive option, namely investing in a wireless switch, which acts like an automated traffic cop. While they typically cost several few thousand dollars each, such switches can manage users more effectively and blanket a courthouse wireless network with a high degree of security. The Chantry equipment, for instance, limits access based on where someone is in the building, Racca said. Aside from Chantry, companies offering wireless network switches include Airespace, Aruba Wireless Networks, Trapeze Networks, Cisco Systems and Symbol Technologies. Ben Charny is a legal and technology writer living in Oakland. This article was originally published on Law.com, a Recorder affiliate.

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