AT&T’s Anti-Infringement Patent

AT&TNetwork surveillance is a persistent issue that privacy advocates warn about on a regular basis. In the face of Edward Snowden’s disclosures, the public has often been concerned about how, when, and why corporations disclose information to policing, security, and intelligence services. Codenamed projects like PRISM, NUCLEON, and MAINWAY, combined with the shadowy nature of how data is collected and used, makes Snowden’s very serious revelations a hot topic to talk, write, and think about.

However, it’s important to recognize that the corporations that are entrusted with significant amounts of our personal information often independently analyze and process our information in ways that we don’t expect. In this post I discuss a patent that AT&T received a little over a year ago to analyze the personal communications of its subscribers to catch instances of copyright infringement. I begin by outlining providing information concerning AT&T’s patent. From there, I discuss other companies’ efforts to develop and deploy similar systems in Europe to shed more light on how AT&T’s system might work. This post concludes by considering a range of reasons that might have driven AT&T to file for their patent, and notes why it’s important to place patents within the broader policy ecosystem that telecommunications companies operate within instead of analyzing such patents in isolation. Continue reading

Lawful Access is Dead; Long Live Lawful Intercept!

Honest PhoneLawful access was a contentious issue on the Canadian agenda when it was initially introduced by the Martin government, and has become even more disputed as subsequent governments have introduced their own iterations of the Liberal legislation. Last year the current majority government introduced Bill C-30, the Protecting Children from Internet Predators Act. In the face of public outcry the government sent the bill to committee prior to a vote on second reading, and most recently declared the bill dead.

Last year I began research concerning alternate means of instituting lawful access powers in Canada. Specifically, I explored whether a ‘backdoor’ had been found to advance various lawful access powers: was Industry Canada, through the 700MHz spectrum consultation, and Public Safety, through its changes to how communications are intercepted, effectively establishing the necessary conditions for lawful access by compliance fiat?

In this post I try to work through aspects of this question. I begin by briefly unpacking some key elements of Bill C-30 and then proceed to give an overview of the spectrum consultation. This overview will touch on proposed changes to lawful intercept standards. I then suggest how changes to the intercept standards could affect Canadians, as well as (re)iterate the importance of publicly discussing expansions to lawful access and intercept powers instead of expanding these powers through regulatory and compliance backdoors.

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(Draft) Deep Packet Inspection and Its Predecessors

Photo by Nenyaki

My formal dissertation research focuses on deep packet inspection technologies, and how they serve as a nexus for competing political interests. Today, I’m making available a draft chapter from my dissertation. In this first chapter I trace the lineage of deep packet inspection (DPI) systems; how do shallow and medium packet inspection systems function, and what were their limitations, and what is novel about DPI itself?

Chapter one serves as an introduction to the theoretical capabilities of the systems; I am not making a claim that all DPI appliances are capable of achieving all, or even half, of the various use cases that I outline. As such, this writing builds on a much earlier working paper that I produced several years ago; core differences between the past work and current chapter surround the detail given to various uses of DPI and a more limited argumentative position. This limit was imposed because this is the first chapter of the dissertation; my analysis and broader theoretical conclusions about the technology and its applications will come in the last two chapters (six and seven).

Comments and feedback are welcomed. Should you choose to cite this draft, please reference it thusly:
Parsons, Christopher. (2013). “(Draft) Chapter One: Deep Packet Inspection and Its Predecessors, v. 3.5,” Technology, Thoughts, and Trinkets (blog). Published February 6, 2013. URL:


This chapter traces the lineage of contemporary packet inspection systems that monitor data traffic flowing across the Internet in real time. After discussing how shallow, medium, and deep packet inspection systems function, I outline the significance of this technology’s most recent iteration, deep packet inspection, and how it could be used to fulfill technical, economic, and political goals. Achieving these goals, however, requires that deep packet inspection be regarded as a surveillance practice. Indeed, deep packet inspection is, at its core, a surveillance-based technology that is used by private actors, such as Internet service providers, to monitor and mediate citizens’ communications. Given the importance of Internet-based communications to every facet of Western society, from personal communications, to economic, cultural and political exchanges, deep packet inspection must be evaluated not just in the abstract but with attention towards how society shapes its deployment and how it may shape society.

Download .pdf (alternate link)

The Danger of Fetishizing BlackBerry Messenger Security

BlackBerry Bold 9780Research in Motion has a problem. For years they promoted themselves as a top-notch mobile security company. During those initial years most of their products were pitched at enterprise users.

Then RIM got into the consumer market.

Most consumers equate RIM’s products with security, email, BlackBerry Messenger (BBM), and a tepid suite of other smartphone features. Most of the people who report on the company tend to agonize over the fact that RIM complies with government surveillance laws. Such reports inevitably emerge each time that the public realizes that RIM meets its lawful access requirements for consumer-line products.

In this post, I want to briefly address some of the BBM-related security concerns and try to (again) correct the record surrounding the security promises of the messaging service. After outlining the deficits of consumer BBM products I briefly argue that we need to avoid fetishizing technology, encryption, or the law, and should instead focus on the democratic implications of the lawful access-style laws that governments use to access citizens’ communications.

In the interest of full disclose: I have family and friends who work at Research In Motion. I haven’t spoken to any of them concerning this post or its contents. None directly work on either BBM or RIM’s encryption systems.

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Unpacking the Potential Costs of Bill C-30

Expense Sheet The Government of Canada has, at least temporarily, backed away from pushing through its tabled lawful access legislation. While many critiques of the legislation abound – some of which I’ve recently noted surrounding warrantless access to subscriber information – there have been limited critiques of the actual financial costs associated with the bill. While some public commentators have suggested that the legislation will threaten small Internet service providers’ financial viability, there has yet to be a formal, detailed, and public financial accounting of lawful access-related costs.

I’m incapable of offering this accounting. The same is true for every other Canadian, whether they are a government bureaucrat, private citizen, corporate agent, or government Minister, because the legislation itself remains murky. Thus, rather than suggest that the legislation will cost X dollars, in this post I outline why people cannot cost out the bill if they solely rely on existing public information.

I begin this post by quickly outlining what the Canadian government suggests that the legislation will cost. Having done so, I move to critique the origins of the government’s numbers. This entails first examining the issue of interception capabilities, second, of storage costs, and third, of the status of Telecommunication Service Providers’ existing lawful access capacities. I conclude by noting the lack of clarity surrounding C-30’s breadth and the need for clarity during the legislative, rather than regulation-setting, stage of the bill’s development.

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Is Your ISP Snooping On You?

The Planet Data CenterLawful access legislation is upon Canadians. Introduced by Minister Toews as ‘with the government or with the child-pornographers’ legislation, lawful access will radically expand the scope of Canadians’ personal information that government authorities can collect without a warrant. Personal information would be turned over to the government under new powers regardless of whether an individual’s actions had violated the Criminal Code. Lawful access powers will be granted to formal policing organizations, including municipal, provincial, and federal police, to Canada’s spy agency, CSIS, and to the Competition Bureau. Since the legislation has been tabled, media and experts alike have been scratching their heads to understand the significance of changes between the previous and current versions of the bill. In a subsequent post, I’ll be writing about how the delimited subscriber information fields that authorities want to access is excessive, and I will demonstrate how these fields will be used and can be abused.

In this post, however, I am taking a step back from the legislation proper. Rather than talk about lawful access, I want to make available a book chapter, written for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, that unpacks some of the surveillance capacities within Canada’s current telecommunications networks. The chapter, titled “Is Your ISP Snooping On You?” (.pdf) first appeared in The Internet Tree: The State of Telecom Policy in Canada 3.0. Specifically, the chapter focuses on a technology that is popularly called ‘deep packet inspection.’ Canadian network agents, such as Internet Service Providers, have deployed these technologies to manage their networks, throttle some kinds of data traffic (e.g. P2P file sharing-related traffic), and track subscriber usage of the networks. This same technology, however, has significant privacy and surveillance implications, insofar as it examines the depths of a data transmission: it is the metaphorical equivalent of not just looking at a postcard, but examining the photo and colour of ink on the postcard to make decisions about how to deliver/treat the message on the card. It is with these network-based technologies in mind that we should reflect on the significance of expanded police access to digital transmissions.

Why is deep packet inspection significant? Because lawful access in Canada might be understood as ‘level one’ of a three-stage surveillance process. The United Kingdom is arguably at ‘level two’ at the moment, on the basis that it possesses an embedded surveillance culture and infrastructure that sees over half a million requests for ‘transactional’ (i.e. everything but the words/pictures of a postcard) data each year. The third level, also being contemplated in the UK, would see deep packet inspection devices repurposed/installed by law enforcement and national security organizations to monitor, mine, and mediate data transmissions between UK citizens in near-real time. Canada isn’t at level three – we’re not even at level two just yet – but our ISPs have experience with embedding technologies that make level-two and -three scenarios possible. Thus, to understand the potential surveillance trajectory associated with lawful access, Canadians must understand existing Canadian network configurations to recognize that this legislation is the first of many stages, and question whether we really want to start down this path in the first place.

Download a copy of “Is your ISP Snooping On You” (.pdf)