In case you’re attempting to hook up with a Wi-Fi access point and also you see “FBI Surveillance Van” in your SSID list, do you have to be worried? Is there an FBI van outside your door? We’ll get to the underside of this surprisingly common situation.
Some people name their wireless SSID “FBI Surveillance Van” as a joke, or to discourage you from connecting. Real FBI agents would never make their presence obvious that way.
It’s a Practical Joke
In case 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 practical joke. This joke originated within the early days of Wi-Fi—within the 2000s—since it ties right into a common fear that somebody is likely to be lurking nearby and watching you. Also, within the early days of Wi-Fi, some people used scary-sounding SSID names as a deterrent to maintain people from connecting to their open (not password protected) Wi-Fi access points.
How is that this possible? A Wi-Fi network name is known as an SSID (short for “Service Set Identifier”), and other people can enter any SSID they need of their Wi-Fi router or hotspot’s settings. Since everyone nearby connecting to Wi-Fi can see these SSIDs (unless they’re hidden), some people use them as a public opportunity to crack a joke, equivalent to “Pretty Fly for a Wi-Fi.”
Sometimes those SSID jokes get people in trouble: In 2014, officials delayed a flight as a consequence of 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 type of joke within the context of individuals who might take it seriously. Actually, an SSID named “FBI_SURVEILLANCE_VAN” made the news in 2011 in relation to a teen that plotted a violent event. This inspired an extended discussion on Techdirt and a post on Gawker about whether it’s wise to call your router “FBI Surveillance Van,” even when you’re thinking that 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 web (see the handfuls of questions on it on Quora, for instance). But beyond that, is there another solution to understand it’s only a joke?
Luckily, yes. The purpose of law enforcement surveillance is to maintain an eye fixed on a suspect, often in secret, using a tactic called covert surveillance. The explanation they keep the surveillance secret is because it would 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 of their van? No, they’d likely use an alternate, secure technique of doing in order that didn’t depend on consumer technology—or just use cellular internet. They don’t need to offer 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 happening mostly from ordinary cars, and sometimes on foot. What little evidence now we have shows that they did use no less than one van within the 1980s, but that was before the trendy digital communications era.
So while we are able to’t definitively say that the FBI is just not spying on you, we are able to say this: If they’re, it has nothing to do with a reputation in your Wi-Fi list. Stay safe on the market!