APD Retreats on 'Operation Wardrive'

Police nix effort to find cyber piggybackers

The Austin Police Department has nixed plans to randomly check for password protection on wireless networks. However, local digital rights group EFF-Austin wants more details about who thought "Operation Wardrive" was a good idea in the first place.

On Sept. 22, APD confirmed that its Digital Analysis Response Team had canceled its planned exercise after local information technology experts raised severe security and civil rights issues. The aim of wardriving is to prevent "piggybacking," which is when someone uses your wireless system without your permission. Think of it like securing your home: If someone breaks in, that's bad. But what if they just jiggle the handle to see whether the door is open? That may be the difference between a burglar and a security guard, and Operation Wardrive was designed to inform residents that their electronic doors are open. It is not just a matter of stealing bandwidth: Piggybackers may use the connection to hack private data or perform other illegal online activities. Now that Internet protocol addresses are regularly used for prosecutions, there are multiple horror stories of homeowners getting their doors kicked down by police looking for cybercriminals using their network.

When Operation Wardrive was announced, members of EFF-Austin were deeply concerned about what they saw as a lack of foresight by APD in handling any data they might collect. Vice President Gregory Foster said it appears to be "an overzealous but well-intentioned effort." But he has still filed an open records request with the city, requesting all documents related to the planning, authorization, and operational procedures for Oper­a­tion Wardrive, as well as technical details about the equipment that was to be used. Foster said, "We want exact details of the decision-making process that went into it, and who was aware of the program's existence."

Wardriving is extremely controversial within the IT community, as was highlighted in 2010 after Google was found to have illicitly collected 600 gigabytes of data in 33 countries over three years while using its Street View camera cars. The national Electronic Fron­tier Foundation is critical of the concept of sealing off wireless networks. Instead, it has called for an open wireless initiative, with password protection replaced by enhanced encryption to prevent electronic eavesdropping. While there are still technical issues of security and bandwidth to be tackled, in a recent editorial, EFF Technology Projects Director Peter Eckersley wrote, "People would probably be willing to give up some bandwidth at home from time to time, in exchange for having free open wireless everywhere else."

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Operation Wardrive, Austin Police Department, EFF Austin

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