If you’re trying to connect to a Wi-Fi hotspot and see “FBI Surveillance Van” in your list of SSIDs, should you be concerned? Is there an FBI van outside your door? We will 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” in your list of Wi-Fi routers or access points, don’t worry: it’s just someone nearby playing a prank. . This joke originated in the early days of Wi-Fi, in the 2000s, because it relates to 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 prevent people from connecting to their open (non-password-protected) Wi-Fi hotspots.
How is this possible? The name of a Wi-Fi network is called an SSID (short for “Service Set Identifier”), and people can enter any SSID they want in the settings of their Wi-Fi router or access point. Since these SSIDs can be seen by all nearby people connected to Wi-Fi (unless they’re hidden), some people use them as a public opportunity to crack a joke, like “Pretty Fly for a Wi-Fi.”
Sometimes those SSID jokes get people in trouble: In 2014, officials delayed a flight because of a terrorism joke in the name of a Wi-Fi hotspot. Similar events followed with a joking reference to a phone being a fire hazard in 2016 and a joking reference to a bomb in 2020.
There are other dangers in using this type of joke in the context of people who might take it seriously. In fact, an SSID named “FBI_SURVEILLANCE_VAN” made headlines in 2011 regarding a teenager who planned a violent event. This inspired a lengthy discussion on Techdirt and a post on Gawker about whether it’s wise to call his router the “FBI Surveillance Van,” even if he thinks it’s funny.
But do we really know it’s a joke?
As seen above, we already know that the “FBI surveillance van” SSID is a hoax based on extensive 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?
Fortunately, yes. The goal of policing 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 could alter the suspect’s behavior if the suspect knew he was being watched.
So if an FBI van was parked nearby secretly keeping tabs on someone, would they publicly announce it with an obvious Wi-Fi SSID name? No. Also, if the supposed 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 probably use an alternative and secure means of doing so that doesn’t rely on consumer technology, or just use cellular internet. They do not need to provide Wi-Fi access to your neighborhood.
Then there is the question of the FBI’s choice of surveillance vehicle itself. Does the FBI really conduct surveillance from a van like we see in the movies? Possibly, but this 2008 NPR account describes the surveillance as taking place mostly from ordinary cars and sometimes on foot. What little evidence we have shows that they used at least one van in the 1980s, but that was before the modern age of digital communications.
So while we can’t say definitively that the FBI isn’t spying on you, we can say this: If they are, it has nothing to do with a name on your Wi-Fi list. Stay safe out there!