[This discussion started on Twitter. I am noting it here for archival purposes, but if anyone wants to provide more information, I'm open to reading it.]
There was a news report a couple of days ago about the Austin, TX police Department's "Digital Analysis Response Team"s plan to 'wardrive' around the city, noting open wireless networks and advising and educating owners of the "dangers" of leaving their network open.
Mike Godwin tweeted "Austin PD spends taxpayer money to "wardrive," push citizens into securing their wireless Internet connections." and the URL:http://www.kvue.com/news/local/APD-conductiong-Operation-Warfare-to-keep-internet-users-safe-130218768.html
(Now updated to note that they have decided to postpone the operation.)
I saw it, read the article and replied, "I can think of worse ways to spend public funds than trying to help and educate people. Or is there some sinister subtext here?". The following dialogue followed:
Mike Godwin: "Why on earth do you think the Austin Police Department project to shut down wireless nodes is about educating people? Seriously?"
Vnend: "Link said: "DART - will - contact - residents who have open wireless connections and teach them the importance of securing them" "
Mike Godwin: "In other words, there is obviously a "sinister" way to understand APD's actions - in fact, more than one way."
Vnend: "If another article talks about 'shutting down' rather than education, please tweet it."
Vnend: "Or it could be what it claims to be: pro-active public outreach and education. Is there a reason to assume the worst in Austin?"
After which Mike sent the follow string of tweets:
"Oh, Christ. Didn't realize you had no idea how police departments or government funding operate. Can't educate you in tweets."
"If it's education, why isn't AISD or UT handling it? Because funding education thru city police departments is super efficient?"
"So you're one of those guys who believes every statement the police make about their programs. Lovely for you, I guess."
"Possibly you can't think of a better use for police money in Austin than having officers drive around checking for open wireless."
"Also possible you've never lived in Austin. Theoretically."
Closing with me tweeting that I had to get to bed, we could try to pick this up this morning and Mike expressing some impatience. This morning I noted the update to the KVUE article about the postponement, and that, more or less, gets us up to date.
Nope, I have never lived in Austin. I lived in the Dallas area several years ago, but that is a very different environment. I do have a few clues about how organizational funding works, but we'll get to that in a minute or three.
I would not be too surprised if either or both AISD and UT (briefly) touched on securing WiFi routers at some point, but wardriving would clearly exceed their mandates (and what their lawyers would advise). The exception would be if someone at UT decided to do a research project on the distribution of open vs closed networks in the Austin area, but that would not include the directional hardware to identify the exact location of the open router needed to actually contact the owner. As far as that goes, both of those routes would be *less* efficient, as far as money is concerned, than going through the APD. I am not saying that the APD is efficient, just that the money would probably have been routed through fewer layers of bureaucracy before it was actually spent.
There is a difference between believing every statement that the government makes and a willingness to take them at face value until they screw it up. Your tweets make it sound as if APD has screwed things up, but when I asked for pointers to examples, you didn't provide URLs or keywords. So far it sounds like a situation that calls for keeping an eye out for what they actually do. If one were curious, setting up an apparently unsecured network (actually throttled to nearly useless levels, but enough to allow a DNS query through) to see what form the 'notification and education' took might be interesting and satisfying.
The assumption of 'sinister' motives seems both odd and counter-intuitive. Generally, if something sinister were up, they wouldn't announce it in advance and allow potential honeypots like the open router above time to be set up. Odd because, if the local cops are that bad, why the heck hasn't it been bigger news and why haven't the locals raised a stink to address the problem? Austin isn't your typical Texas town. I would expect to hear a stink if there was a major problem on the level of 'automatically assume the police are up to no good'.
As far as department and group funding, this kind of thing sounds like exactly what I would expect from the police in a state capital, who were given the funds for some investigative hardware (possibly under a wonderful 'anti-terrorism grant') and now needed to show some use for them and training for staff. The nature of most departmental funding, government or private, is 'use it or lose it', so this kind of 'use it' planning is perfectly in character. The problem is the sloppy, piss-poor way most agencies and some companies handle their budgeting.
But that doesn't make things 'sinister' by default, just inefficient and a little hapless.