Official seal of the Office of the Attorney General of Texas
Official seal of the Office of the Attorney General of Texas

In late September, the Austin Police Department (APD) aimed to identify open residential wireless access points around the city and educate their owners about the risks of providing free Internet access. The initiative, dubbed Operation Wardrive, was announced by an APD Public Information Office press release which was quickly picked up by local ABC-affiliate KVUE. Word circulated throughout the community and back to local officials, who quashed the nascent effort by APD’s Digital Analysis Response Unit (DART) prior to deployment. It remains uncertain whether the project will be restarted.

One facet of the community response to #OpWardrive was an open records request filed by EFF Austin with the City of Austin’s Communications and Public Information Office on September 21st. We made ten distinct requests for information, ranging from details about the inception and planning of the initiative, to the technologies and techniques DART intended to employ to reliably associate an omnidirectional access point signal with a particular residence in a densely populated metropolitan area.

Why did we make these requests? If the Austin Police Department gathers data about open wireless access points operated by local citizens and organizations, we think it’s important to have a full and complete understanding of both intention and process. How will this data be used? Where will it be stored? Will it be retained and mapped? Is there a surveillance aspect to this activity? IF this activity is limited in scope, as suggested by one email we acquired suggesting that the wardrive would be only one time for a few hours, what is the target area, and why was it selected?

As compared to other states, Texas has admirable Open Records laws defined in Chapter 552 of the Texas Government Code. Conforming with § 552.301(b), the City of Austin (CoA) responded to our request on October 5th (within 10 business days) providing a handful of documents responsive to our inquiry while simultaneously requesting a decision from the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) on the disclosure of additional records.

Operation Wardrive Open Records Request – City of Austin Response (Oct 5, 2011) – Letters

The documents withheld are alleged to fall under the protection of the attorney-client privilege (§ 552.107(1)) or potentially interfere with law enforcement and crime prevention efforts (§ 552.108(b)(1)). The documents provided to EFF Austin included emails discussing the Operation Wardrive press release and a heavily redacted document detailing APD DART’s Standard Operating Procedures (SOP).

Operation Wardrive Open Records Request – City of Austin Response (Oct 5, 2011) – Records

The Texas Attorney General had 45 business days to issue a ruling on the CoA’s request, and dutifully responded on December 13th (EFF Austin opted not to exercise its right to comment in support of the release of the requested materials as described in § 552.304). The Office of the Attorney General concurred with the City of Austin concerning records protected by attorney-client privilege, but did not entirely agree with the assertion that the remaining documents could be withheld for fear of disrupting law enforcement efforts. The remaining documents include an “operational briefing” and the redacted sections of the SOP (with the exception of the cellular phone numbers of DART detectives, which are wisely protected pursuant to Open Records Decision 506 at 2 (1988)).

Operation Wardrive Open Records Request – Attorney General Response (Dec 13, 2011)

The City of Austin now has ten calendar days to either provide the requested information or access to it, or contest the OAG’s decision in court. We’ll post updates as the story unfolds.

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):

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.