Austin Police Planned… Then Postponed Wardriving Plans In An Attempt To Shutdown Open WiFi

from the um,-but-it's-legal dept

Jonathan Rumion alerted us to a plan by the Austin, Texas police department to conduct a massive war drive around the city, looking for open WiFi networks, with the plan to try to find the owners, and tell them to lock up their WiFi networks. We’ve heard of similar campaigns in the past. Rumion was reasonably concerned about this effort — and whether it was because of him asking questions, or other reasons, it looks like the Austin police have postponed this effort for the time being.

Either way, it raises lots of questions. Having an open WiFi network is not against the law, so should the police really be going around telling people to lock up their WiFi? It’s also not at all clear how they’re figuring out who actually owns the open WiFi networks. Rumion was also concerned about what the police might do with the data they collect, though I don’t think that should be an issue — that data is public. Still, it does seem like a questionable effort against something that remains perfectly legal.

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Comments on “Austin Police Planned… Then Postponed Wardriving Plans In An Attempt To Shutdown Open WiFi”

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DMNTD says:


Agreed, leave it be. I can see the big brother aspect and nanny state incentive but those are propped up scare tactics.

It’s not a dangerous thing and only becomes that when and IF IF IF your open is used to d/l material that is “illegal”. Sadly, the only reason it’s not illegal is because there is a card to be played that has not been played yet by the big government. IF, you ask me anyway.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Re: sigh

Marc Randazza already has a settlement of a lawsuit where someone had open wifi and paid him an obscene amount of money based on it being his fault for what someone else did with the connection merely because the bill was in the defendants name.

While he might try to scare people with that figure and “settlement” it is not a legal finding by a court. It is another tool to try and stomp out the lawsuit defense of I have open wifi.

Take_a_WIfi_on_me (sorry Byrds, it just seemed to says:

Open Wireless can be a good thing.

Police strongarming altruists to assert a surveillance society is wrong. One hopes that authority willfully overstepping it’s rightful power is punished-having police make up their authority disconnects our system of governance and is a dangerous precedent.

Networks prosper with more nodes, a fact clearly visible to anyone old enough to recall the days before ubiquitious internet, fax machines or telephones. Constraining that devalues the entire network.

Making the world safe for data miners and the total information crowd comes at a high cost: stifled discussion, freezing out folks too poor to afford broadband, eidetic machine memory where everything one ever says is a permanent record to be freely recalled without context.

The data is often wrong: users spoof information, MAC address changers and IP proxies are common. Competant criminals and terrorists will have little trouble stealing anomnimity, making these policies ineffective for policing, and casting the majority of innocents as criminals.

Those who see the commensualism in open networks are not all criminals-they don’t need to be policed until they _actually_ commit a crime.

Yo Moma says:

Re: FOX News Alert

Alarmist Douche…”The operation was scheduled to take place on Thursday as an effort to educate the public about securing their wireless Internet connections. DART unit members were to make contact with residents who have open wireless connections and teach them the importance of securing them.”

chris (profile) says:

Re: Re: Unsolved rape, murder, arson, assault and kidnapping cases...

you would think with all the complaining about illegal immigrants coming from Mexico into Arizona and Texas, they would have something else to keep them busy…

ok smart guy, how do you know these illegals aren’t coming into the country through these open wireless networks? FUD much?

btr1701 says:

Re: Re: Unsolved rape, murder, arson, assault and kidnapping cases...

> you would think with all the complaining
> about illegal immigrants coming from Mexico
> into Arizona and Texas, they would have
> something else to keep them busy

The Austin police can’t do anything about illegals. Haven’t you heard? Austin is one of those lovely ‘sanctuary cities’. The cops are prohibited by the city council from enforcing or helping to enforce US law if it has anything to do with illegal immigration.

Fantastic, huh?

Bob V (profile) says:

Re: Sounds OK to me...

The assumption with a business closed at night is that the owner would want the doors locked and that would be a fairly reasonable assumption.

The reasons for leaving a wifi network open are varied. Me personally I leave it mine open for my convenience. There is absolutely nothing illegal or even wrong with leaving it open. It does not violate my service agreement with my ISP.

The people arguing that illegal activities may potentially happen on an open access are not thinking through the logical progression of what will happen if we go down the road of mandating encrypting connections. IF we accept the government telling us we need to lock down connections for our own good, what will be the next thing we will allow for our own good.

Maybe we need the government to mandate enforced best practices regarding passwords. After that we should mandate antivirus and security software. Then maybe enforced patching. By god we will make sure that all users of electronics are safe.

KGWagner (profile) says:

It's not illegal, but some people don't understand their exposure

Some people leave their wifi open, which is fine, but we’ve already seen that the behavior can be problematic. Look at Jamie Thomas. I don’t now that those songs were shared via wifi, but Thomas is definitely on the hook for the activity.

What if somebody parks outside your house and proceeds to download a mountain of kiddie porn? Even if you successfully defend yourself against such a thing, the stink is still on you, and the chances of successfully defending yourself aren’t very good.

From that point of view, this whole thing could be considered something of a public service, kinda like telling someone they left their headlights on or their dog’s on the loose.

Austin (profile) says:

Re: It's not illegal, but some people don't understand their exposure

“Some people leave their wifi open, which is fine, but we’ve already seen that the behavior can be problematic.”

Then it’s an education problem. The solution here isn’t to police ALL the users, it’s to EDUCATE the users who don’t know what they’re doing. You wanna solve this problem? Require everyone who buys a router at Best Buy to watch a 2 minute tutorial on WEP and/or WPA. Hell, just refer them to one of the countless YouTube videos of someone cracking WEP with Backtrack in under 2 minutes. Problem solved.

Seriously, this is the problem with America. People here think Educations ends at Graduation. Don’t get me wrong, I personally believe the US Educational system is badly broken and should be scrapped entirely and recreated from scratch, but that’s not the point. The problem here in America is that, at some age, everyone stops learning. People hit 40 or 50 or 60 and they start thinking “I’m old, I’m busy, and some younger person can figure this stuff out for me for $6/hour, so I give up.” This mindset has cost more trillions of dollars and more millions of lives than any war in the last 3 centuries. Education should be like healthcare – cradle to grave. The thought that you hit some magical point where you’ve “paid your dues” and no longer need to learn anything is as insane as thinking “well, I’m 55, so even though everyone else is going to get a Flu Shot, I’ve had 50 of those things and I’m alright.” It’s insane.

So rather than passing a law that punishes everyone (or worse, using the police to enforce a misguided viewpoint with zero law to back it up) – including those who actually properly secure a network without WEP/WPA (it can be done!) let’s focus on educating those who simply don’t have the KNOWLEDGE to do it.

Also, in case someone is wondering, here’s my setup:

DSL Modem > Router A > Router B

Router A has no encryption but is configured to allow only 1 wifi connection at a time. My Nintendo DS uses this connection 24/7 unless a friend needs it. Thus, the single slot is always occupied, preventing use by the public. Router B uses WPA, a MAC Filter, a 9 connection limit (the exact number of devices I connect to it), static DHCP, expires leases every 30 minutes, and sends me an email if all previous devices don’t reconnect within 5 minutes.

Now, if you don’t understand ANY of what I just said, GO EDUCATE YOURSELF. THIS IS INTERNET 101 PEOPLE!

Frogpond says:

Open WiFi

The concept of leaving a personal WIFI open to the public is risky and I have the legal bills to prove it. A few years ago the cops in my area were not smart enough to realize that an IP number is not like a fingerprint. When some unknown dirt bag used my open WIFI to order stuff on a stolen credit card they were convinced it was me even though I was a thousand miles away from my computer when it occurred.
They are much smarter now thanks to my lawyer and a few thousand dollars of my money.

Having said this, I would defend anyone’s right to leave their WIFI open but I would not recommend it.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Maybe they were preemptively trying to avoid the problem they had in Madison WI with an officer using the laptop in his car to bittorrent a movie?

One also has to wonder what “grass roots” front for the media corps offered them money to provide this vital service to the community.

Spaceboy (profile) says:

Re: Doors

Yes it’s quite different. Beat cops are assigned a territory which they patrol. As they patrol they may or may not test doors to see if they are unlocked. It’s common sense that the doors should be locked when the business is closed. The owner has to physically lock or unlock the door to open or close.

Operation wardrive is not part of any police officers beat. They are going to drive around with the express purpose of finding out who has open wifi. Period.

Knowledgeable Geek says:

Shut down Wi-fi

God forbid you all think that this could actually be a nice gesture to help people that don’t know how to lock down their wireless networks. I understand that people on this site all know how to lock down their networks, but trust me when I say there are a lot of people who have no idea how to do that.

David Liu (profile) says:

Re: Shut down Wi-fi

Yeah, this was what I was thinking.

Everyone here is protesting that they should be able to leave their wifi open if they want to, but did you people stop to think that you are not the people who the cops are trying to warn? Some people just don’t even know that a WiFi can be open, and can also be locked down for their own protection, so if the police is trying to lend a helping hand, more power to them.

Isamu says:

Re: Re: Shut down Wi-fi

Rule of thumb, If you can’t keep it safe don’t get it.

People should be able to keep their WiFi open if they wish.

People that don’t know how to secure, shouldn’t be setting up WiFi in their homes. They have no excuse for not knowing how. Besides the great thing called the internet, they have the owner’s manual to tell them to how to secure it. Many wireless routers have an option to auto-secure it.

Anonymous Coward says:

“Having an open WiFi network is not against the law, so should the police really be going around telling people to lock up their WiFi? “

It’s not illegal to leave your house door unlocked or your car doors unlocked, but in many places if the police note it, they will contact you and suggest you lock them. It is a question of security, even if it isn’t “the law”.

I wouldn’t be shocked to see an anti-open WiFi law coming at some point.

out_of_the_blue says:

"Firefighters tell homeowners how to keep houses safe from fires"

Those vicious government worriers! — Link title on same page. Looks as though the police state is going full tilt.

I don’t see much problem with this, even if I didn’t despise all those too lazy to connect wires.

By the way, I just noticed that the weekend “stories” (which I never read — don’t you people have off-line lives?) are what I frequently rail at: totally comments on comments! Holy cow, it’s narcissistic wallowing in your own supposed wit, And to me seems to drive the reach for excess ornamental fluorishes.

Then, after noting a LACK in the comments above (#24 current), occurred to me that what’s needed is the opposite: for Mike to highlight and trumpet the first ad hominem or vulgarism. Let’s all see who’s the first low-life to use those this week, hmm? (This mention will cause skewing of results, I hope.)

[And a somewhat related shout out to #5 Take_a_WIfi_on_me for working in two rare words: eidetic and commensualism.]

Jeffrey Nonken (profile) says:

Re: "Firefighters tell homeowners how to keep houses safe from fires"

“…even if I didn’t despise all those too lazy to connect wires.”

How about those of us who don’t have permission to rewire our apartments? How about those of us with laptops who want to — gasp — carry them around with us? (I know — the idea of using a portable device in a portable manner does tend to cramp the brain.) How about those of us who have guests who want to connect their laptops to the Internet while sitting on the couch or whatever handy chair we sit them in? Blue wires stretched across the floor and sticking out of the cushions are so chic this season!

“Lazy” is just a way of saying “I don’t have your priorities and I can’t be bothered to understand them, so I’ll just judge you harshly to feel better about myself.”

“Holy cow, it’s narcissistic wallowing in your own supposed wit, And to me seems to drive the reach for excess ornamental fluorishes.”

Pot, kettle.

Rikuo (profile) says:

Re: "Firefighters tell homeowners how to keep houses safe from fires"

“By the way, I just noticed that the weekend “stories” (which I never read — don’t you people have off-line lives?)”

Umm…if you’re the same out_of_the_blue who’s been coming here for months, then surely you know that Techdirt doesn’t have any stories during the weekend? Unless I’m mistaken, the weekend is Saturday and Sunday. Mike does post articles on a Friday, but unless those of you in America include Friday as part of the weekend, then I wonder about you, OotB.

Jackson says:

Re: Re:

It’s a waste of government spending. The internet service provider owns this action just like a toll road. The ISP can also correlate the account by matching the IP to the account at the time of the check. Officers will simply have a wifi usb device attached to their already existing laptop sending email via the open network. This an attempt at prevention because they spend a lot more time and resources catching bad behavior after the fact

SuD says:

Partially agree

Some people are not aware enough of the risk of leaving an open AP. Same for WEP and WPAPSK weak passphrases.

Said that, not sure if it is ok to enforce people to use encryption.

Also, not sure how much time they’ll spend trying to match each open AP with its location and owner. Wouldn’t it be faster to break into the network and inject a banner with the warning, or break into the router, set up a random key, and change the ssid to “contact-the-police-to-recover-your-key”

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Partially agree

It would be even faster and cheaper to print up some flyers on the subject and pass them around the neighborhood.

Better yet: one letter to each of the ISPs operating in the region asking them to mass email their customers about it.

Having law enforcement wardriving around is wasteful on its face and suspicious underneath.

Jeffrey Nonken (profile) says:

Re: Partially agree

‘Wouldn’t it be faster to break into the network and inject a banner with the warning, or break into the router, set up a random key, and change the ssid to “contact-the-police-to-recover-your-key”‘

So you’re advocating the police violate anti-hacking laws for the good of the public?

Spaceboy (profile) says:

Colossal Waste of resources.

I have six or seven routers lying around collecting dust. If I lived in Austin I’d plug them all in and then deny owning them when the police come knocking. Let’s see how determined they are to find out then when they drive down Main street and spot 500 hotspots.

This whole initiative is a non-starter. In order to combat the ‘scourge’ of open wifi they will have to continually wardrive to look for new hotspots.

Stay classy Austin.

Anonymous Coward says:

This does not need to be regulated or have laws created. The market is fixing this as we speak. A few years ago, any consumer grade wireless router came out of the box unsecured. Now, most of them are already secured out of the box. Linksys, for example, are secured. Then after that all new routers have push button security.

Consumers not knowing how to set these up is not an excuse. The directions are there and very readable. Is it too much to ask that people read the 5 page manual? Creating laws for things like this is unacceptable. Basically saying “Its ok if you don’t know, I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” We need a little more personal responsibility and a lot let gov responsibility.

Also, since most new routers come secured now anyways. The people who have unsecured networks probably want it that way.

Anonymous Coward says:

Welcome to Amerika. You know what would happen to us if we tried to protest like they did in the middle east. The same as happened in the anti-war demonstrations in the 60’s. Our Police will KILL you. They will shut off your communications, block all the exits and then beat the F**K out of you. Welcome to Chicago, Oh right this is Austin in the execution state TexASS, the land of looney politicians. You really can’t trust them. Their police are crazier then God is.

Palmyra (profile) says:


As I see it if this went through every Starbucks, Mickey Ds, public libraries , and any other business or government agency that provides open WiFi will have to close it down.

In my area the little town/city I live next to has free open WiFi running down main street. Both auto dealers we purchased out cars from have open Wifi for customer convenience. Heck even the senior citizen center where I volunteer has open WiFi.

I wonder if Austin donut shoppes have open WiFi?

Anonymous Coward says:

I am, quite frankly, shocked at the negativity here concerning a campaign that is reported as being intended to help educate residents on some of the problems associated with unsecure systems. While not stated in the linked article, it does seem somewhat likely that residents would also be provided information relating to how to secure a system (instructions, places that might be able to help, etc.).

Marc John Randazza (profile) says:

Seems a little strange to be upset over this. Unless I have my facts wrong, in which case, I’d be happy to reevaluate my position…. but, the way I understood this effort, it was just the cops educating people about the risks they face by leaving the wifi open — not threatening them with anything for leaving it open.

In my last neighborhood, the cops drove around at night and woke me up more than once because I was stupid and left my garage door open. They didn’t force me to shut it. They just let me know it was open, and that someone might steal my stuff if I left it like that.

Seems like pro active policing to me. If the cops come to your house and inform you, and you say “yeah, I want it open,” then their job is done. If they try and force you to lock it down, I think they are overstepping their bounds.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re:

The analogy seems pretty weak.

In the first place, it’s plainly obvious whether or not your garage door is open. A cop can notice it in the routine course of his duties and out of the goodness of his heart warn you. Not so with wifi — you have to have equipment and be driving around looking for them. Given that educating people about network security is not anywhere close to being in a cop’s job description, it seems like ahuge misallocation of resources that could be better applies elsewhere.

I assume that the cops don’t have a dedicated team of people looking for open garage doors, and if they did, I would have an objection to that for the same reason.

Second, with the garage doors they are proactively preventing property crime. What crime are they proactively protecting you from with the wifi? I can’t think of any, except maybe identify theft — and WPA is weak protection against a criminal who wants to gather your CC numbers and such anyway.

Also, it’s unnecessary. As a commenter earlier pointed out, wifi routers come presecured nowadays.

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