Successful inquiry into #OpWardrive

The Joy of Tech #354 - They always dreamed of having a home in the range
The Joy of Tech #354 - They always dreamed of having a home in the range

On Wednesday September 21st, EFF Austin [ @EFFaustin ] was notified about the Austin Police Department’s (APD) Digital Analysis Response Team’s [ DART, @APDDART ] “Operation Wardrive” [ #OpWardrive ] via the KVUE [ @KVUE ] news article that originally appeared at the following URI (it’s relatively common for journalism operations to reuse the same URI to track stories as they develop, sometimes redirecting to new articles):
http://www.kvue.com/news/local/APD-conductiong-Operation-Warfare-to-keep-internet-users-safe-130218768.html

For reference, the text of the original KVUE article is cited in EFF Austin’s response.

Beginning with KVUE’s article, which appears to have been the only source of information and perspective on APD’s intent, a largely uncoordinated but similarly informed collective action took place across multiple points of interface and communication with APD and the Austin City Council [ @AustinTexasGov, #ATXCouncil ]. This seems to have ensured that officials and decision makers in a position to intervene were made aware of public sentiment in a timely manner. Sufficient public concern was observed to motivate officials towards action.

There is uncertainty about whether “Operation Wardrive” has been canceled or postponed, as reflected in this sequence of tweets from KVUE’s account on Thursday morning.

@KVUE (Thu Sep 22 10:23am, 10:20am, 9:30am CST)
@KVUE (Thu Sep 22 10:23am, 10:20am, 9:30am CST)

APD Chief of Police Art Acevedo is more clear in his email response (Thu Sep 22 10:13:55am CST) to Austinite Mark Boyden‘s thoughtful email addressed to all Austin City Council members, several local activists, Acevedo, and APD Public Information Office Manager Anna Sabana.

Thank you for sharing your concerns with me. This WarDrive idea was not approved by APD Executive Staff and in fact has been disapproved. We will be releasing a statement later today. Although the involved unit’s intent was noble (educating the public about the risks to your personal information), a PSA or other educational effort would be much more effective. To place you further at ease, the idea was killed before actual implementation.

The APD Public Information Office did not publish a formal statement on Thursday via APD News Releases nor the City of Austin Communications and Public Information Office.

KVUE’s Shelton Green [ @SheltonG_KVUE, bio, email ] reached out to EFF Austin seeking our perspective for a follow-up story. EFF Austin President Jon Lebkowsky [ @jonl, wikipedia, homepage ] sat for that interview, which was crafted into the following story, which led the news on KVUE last night (Thu Sep 22 10:00pm).

What’s Next?

As Shelton Green mentions at the end of the story, EFF Austin would like to work with the Austin Police Department Digital Analysis Response Team to craft a winning public education campaign on the risks as well as the virtues of operating an open, publicly-accessible wireless access point. We’ve begun to compile information and gather existing recommendations in this space (if you have sources, please add as a comment or mention to @EFFaustin with hashtag #OpWardrive).

EFF Austin has also decided to continue with our Texas Public Information Act Open Records request. We expect to receive an assessment of the viability of each of our 10 specific inquiries along with an estimate of fees we must pay to have the records processed.

Yesterday, some members of the EFF Austin Board of Directors were frankly shocked by the arrival of an unsolicited $10 donation. I had forgotten we even have a Paypal account. But it made us feel good, and reminded us that we are embarking on a path which will have attendant fees and expenses. We would like to help serve the public interest by walking that path, and would therefore like to ask if you can help support our efforts. If you like what we’re doing, please consider donating (we’re a nonprofit) to help us defray approaching expenses. There’s a Paypal donate button at the upper right of this page.

We believe in transparency and sunlight’s powers of disinfection. EFF Austin will provide transparency into our expenses and you can be sure we will sing praises to our supporters for their role in helping us act. Thank you.

If you’d like to get more involved, consider following us on Twitter, liking us on Facebook, joining our interesting email discussion list, or coming to our next meetup.

Austin Police Department announces “Operation Wardrive”

Open Wireless Access Points - security threat?
Open Wireless Access Points - security threat?

Update (Sep 22 @ 1:07pm) – The Austin Police Department has decided to cancel Operation Wardrive and focus on the public education facet of this work. See Mark Boyden’s comment, an email response from APD Chief Art Acevedo. Thanks go to Scott Henson at Grits For Breakfast for his attention to this matter.

Yesterday (September 20th @ 2:46pm CST), KVUE News published an article relaying the Austin Police Department‘s intention to identify open residential wireless access points (WAPs) throughout the city.

Police will soon conduct an operation to find open wireless Internet connections in the city.

The APD Digital Analysis Response Team, or DART, will hold “Operation Wardrive” Thursday, Sept. 22. DART unit members will make contact with residents who have open wireless connections and teach them the importance of securing them.

This raises a number of immediate questions, perhaps the most simplistic and potentially revealing being simply: “why?” The answer to that question appears to be the same answer provided for lots of questions lately: safety.

From the article:

Leaving your wireless network open invites a number of problems:

  • You may exceed the number of connections permitted by your Internet service provider.
  • Users piggy-backing on your internet connection might use up your bandwidth and slow your connection.
  • Users piggy-backing on your internet connection might engage in illegal activity that will be traced to you.
  • Malicious users may be able to monitor your Internet activity and steal passwords and other sensitive information.
  • Malicious users may be able to access files on your computer, install spyware and other malicious programs, or take control of your computer.

The EFF Austin Board of Directors finds nothing wrong with this analysis of the potential risks Internet users undertake when intentionally or unintentionally leaving their wireless access points open for shared use. In fact, we could cite a few more. However, these are much the same risks that Internet users undertake when using ANY shared wireless access point, such as those provided by cafés, public parks, or the Austin Public Library.

Missing from the cited analysis is any recognition of potential benefits to be gained from publicly sharing one’s wireless access point. Lately, the virtues of contributing to any shared commons tends to be overshadowed by fears of bad actors (both real and imagined). For some facts, it’s worth reviewing cryptographer and computer security specialist Bruce Schneier‘s discussion on the virtues and risks of running an open wireless network.

More importantly, missing from the cited analysis is any recognition of the unintended consequences of APD collecting this information. The Austin Police Department is a public agency and is thus subject to the Texas Public Information Act (TPIA), Chapter 552 of the Texas Government Code, which guarantees the public’s access to information in the custody of government agencies. As a result of undertaking “Operation Wardrive” the records generated by that operation are subject to open records requests. That information is potentially valuable to perpetrators interested in undertaking the kind of malfeasance outlined in the KVUE article.

The EFF Austin Board is not interested in this data beyond knowing what is collected and why. We are more interested in the provenance of this Austin Police Department operation, and doing what we can to help APD increase public education about the virtues and risks of running an open wireless access point. To that end, we have decided to file an Open Records request today seeking information on this operation.

“Operation Wardrive” Open Records Request (Sep 21, 2011)

#BART Special Board Meeting re: Cellphone Shutdown & Protests

Earlier: BART’s Protest Position Does Not Withstand Legal Scrutiny