Why Do I See “FBI Surveillance Van” in My Wi-Fi List? – Technology

A black surveillance van illustration on a blue background.

If you’re trying to connect to a Wi-Fi access point and you see “FBI Surveillance Van” in your SSID list, should you be worried? Is there an FBI van outside your door? We’ll get to the bottom of this surprisingly common situation.

It’s a Practical Joke

If you see “FBI Surveillance Van,” “FBI Van,” “NSA Van,” or “Police Surveillance Van” on your list of Wi-Fi routers or access points, don’t worry: It’s just someone nearby playing a practical joke. This joke originated in the early days of Wi-Fi—in the 2000s—because it ties into a common fear that someone might be lurking nearby and watching you. Also, in the early days of Wi-Fi, some people used scary-sounding SSID names as a deterrent to keep people from connecting to their open (not password protected) Wi-Fi access points.

How is this possible? A Wi-Fi network name is called an SSID (short for “Service Set Identifier”), and people can enter any SSID they want in their Wi-Fi router or hotspot’s settings. Since everyone nearby connecting to Wi-Fi can see these SSIDs (unless they are hidden), some people use them as a public opportunity to crack a joke, such as “Pretty Fly for a Wi-Fi.”

Sometimes those SSID jokes get people in trouble: In 2014, officials delayed a flight due to a terrorism joke in a Wi-Fi hotspot name. Similar events happened with a joke reference to a fire-hazard phone in 2016, and a joke bomb reference in 2020.

There are other dangers in using this kind of joke in the context of people who might take it seriously. In fact, an SSID named “FBI_SURVEILLANCE_VAN” made the news in 2011 in relation to a teen that plotted a violent event. This inspired a long discussion on Techdirt and a post on Gawker about whether it’s wise to name your router “FBI Surveillance Van,” even if you think it’s funny.

But Do We Really Know It’s a Joke?

As seen above, we already know the “FBI Surveillance Van” SSID is a joke based on ample cultural evidence on the internet (see the dozens of questions about it on Quora, for example). But beyond that, is there another way to know it’s just a joke?

Luckily, yes. The point of law enforcement surveillance is to keep an eye on a suspect, often in secret, using a tactic called covert surveillance. The reason they keep the surveillance secret is because it might alter the suspect’s behavior if the suspect knew they were being watched.

So if an FBI van were parked nearby secretly watching someone, would they publicly announce it with an obvious Wi-Fi SSID name? No. Also, if the purported FBI agents inside this hypothetical surveillance van needed internet access, would they get it through a Wi-Fi router in their van? No, they would likely use an alternative, secure means of doing so that didn’t rely on consumer technology—or simply use cellular internet. They don’t need to provide Wi-Fi access to your neighborhood.

Then there’s the question of the FBI’s choice of surveillance vehicle itself. Does the FBI really conduct surveillance from a van like we see in films? Possibly, but this 2008 account from NPR describes surveillance taking place mostly from ordinary cars, and sometimes on foot. What little evidence we have shows that they did use at least one van in the 1980s, but that was before the modern digital communications era.

So while we can’t definitively say that the FBI is not spying on you, we can say this: If they are, it has nothing to do with a name in your Wi-Fi list. Stay safe out there!

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