To track down suspects linked to child pornography, the Martinez, Calif., Police Department is using a “Wi-Fi testing device” to assist with investigations and locate individuals suspected of downloading the illegal content. The tool verifies secured and unsecured wireless network locations to better help identify the suspect’s location.

The police department, located in central California’s East Bay, purchased one of the Wi-Fi testing units nearly six months ago. Within that time, the police department has served 11 search warrants with the assistance of the device, said Sgt. Dave Mathers. The department is using the AirCheck Wi-Fi tester developed by Everett, Wash.-based Fluke Networks, which cost the department nearly $2,000 to purchase.

The handheld tester allows an officer to detect nearby devices that use a Wi-Fi connection at the premises in question. This can be helpful in cases where someone is piggybacking off of another person’s connection to download the illegal content.

The Martinez Police Department is one example of many law enforcement agencies that are “fighting fire with fire” — utilizing technology to combat Internet crimes. But not everyone is convinced such a strategy will be effective.

Lee Badman, a wireless network engineer and IT analyst at Syracuse University, and a wireless mobility blogger for Network Computing magazine, wrote in a Sept. 6 blog post that although combating child pornography should be a law enforcement priority, police officers need to be properly trained to use Wi-Fi tester tools.

In an interview with Government Technology, Badman cautioned that results can sometimes be misinterpreted. “Police don’t tend to be wireless network analysts, and to unequivocally say something is coming from a given location and/or network, based on either signal or even packet, it’s really, really risky to think that you can put that kind of power into the hands of an amateur.”

Badman said even when the best tools are used for testing Wi-Fi, there’s no guarantee the tool will lead a police officer to the right apartment or house where child pornography is being accessed. Wi-Fi testers are more efficiently used, he said, when police officers have the time to do an on-site investigation and know how to properly use the tool and have the training to interpret what they’re seeing.

Training Protocols

Mathers is currently the only police officer in the Martinez Police Department using the Wi-Fi testing unit, he said. He would like to get other officers trained on the tool. Fluke Networks says its Wi-Fi tester has an interface that’s friendly for nontechnical users.

To ease concerns Badman and others might have, Mathers said police officers in the Martinez Police Department won’t be using the Wi-Fi tester at random and will have proper training before using the tool in the field.

“There’s no one — at least who talks to me — that would be taking an AirCheck and then next thing you know they’re smashing down a door to break into a house to find some crime that’s going on based solely on what they get from an AirCheck,” Mathers said. “You don’t use it that early on in the equation.”

If the department has a lead that a suspect is downloading child pornography, Mathers said the department will obtain a search warrant to ask the appropriate Internet service provider for the suspect’s name and address. After further investigation, the police department would obtain a second warrant to search the suspect’s home. From there, a police officer would use the Wi-Fi tester to check for secured and unsecured wireless networks in the area.

If the suspect isn’t found to have a device that’s downloading the illegal content — but owns an open, unsecured Wi-Fi network — the police officer conducting the investigation would use the Wi-Fi tester (with the suspect’s consent) to search for devices operated by someone else nearby.

“Nowadays it might not be the first suspect; it could be the neighbor tapping into suspect’s unsecured Wi-Fi,” Mathers said.

In another scenario, the suspect’s home may be searched but show no immediate evidence of devices that are downloading child pornography. In that case, the suspect could have a network-attached device that’s hidden — like in the attic — that wouldn’t otherwise be found without the Wi-Fi tester’s assistance.

Mathers said he equates the Wi-Fi tester to narcotic-sniffing dogs that are only supposed to be used when there’s a predetermined reason. The Wi-Fi tester isn’t used without probable cause, Mathers said.

But does having visible access to all devices using a Wi-Fi network infringe on privacy rights? Badman said while the issue does raise some legal and ethical questions, if he were a policeman he’d want access to any tool available for combating child pornography.

“At same time, if I was a supervisor, I’d make sure my people using this stuff are very well trained just so we’re not jumping to the wrong conclusions,” Badman said. 

Sarah Rich, Staff Writer Sarah Rich  |  Staff Writer

In 2008, Sarah Rich graduated from California State University, Chico, where she majored in news-editorial journalism and minored in sociology. Since 2010, Sarah has written for Government Technology magazine and covers a spectrum of public-sector IT topics, including cloud computing, transparency, broadband, and other innovative projects and trends. She currently lives in Sacramento, Calif.