Let me start with this: I am woefully ignorant and Iranian politics, and have no expertise to comment on it. I’ll save my personal thoughts on the matter for private conversations rather than embarrass myself by making bold and ignorant statements here. Instead, I want to briefly note and comment on how the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) is talking about Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) and the data traffic that is flowing in and out of Iran.
The WSJ has recently disclosed that Iranian network engineers are using DPI to examine, assess, and regulate content that is entering and exiting Iran. They note that the monitoring capacity was, at least in part, facilitated by infrastructure that was sold by Nokia-Simens. The article proceeds, stating that traffic analysis processes have been experimented with before, though this is the first major deployment of these processes that has captured the attention of the world/Western public. This is where things start getting interesting.
The article notes that;
The Iranian government had experimented with the equipment for brief periods in recent months, but it had not been used extensively, and therefore its capabilities weren’t fully displayed – until during the recent unrest, the Internet experts interviewed said.
For the past little while I’ve been (back) in Ontario trying to soak up as much information as I could about telecommunications and deep packet inspection. I was generously given the opportunity to attend the Canadian Telecommunications Summit by Mark Goldberg a while ago, and it was an amazing experience. I found that the new media panel, where broadcasters and carriers came together to discuss their (often contrasting) modes of disseminating content offered some real insights into the approaches to media on the ‘net. It demonstrated very clear contrasts in how new media might operate, and be seen by the Dominant Carriers, into focus for me and really began to provide a broader image of the actual strategies of various parties.
A huge element of the conference surrounded the development of wireless as the new space for innovation. Often unspoken, save for in informal discussions, was that wireline was seen as increasingly outmoded. Most statistics that were formally presented saw wireless overtaking wireline broadband by 2014 or so. This has me wondering about how important it is to examine capital expenses by major broadband providers – while we read that there is massive investment (totaling in the hundreds of millions/billions per year across all carriers), how much is in wireless and how much is in wireline infrastructure?
Immanuel Kant’s essay “On the Common Saying: ‘This May be True in Theory, but it does not Apply in Practice'” argues that theory is central to understanding the world around us and that, moreover, attempts to say that ‘theory doesn’t apply to the world as such’ are generally misguided. Part of the reason that Kant can so firmly advocate that theory and reality are co-original emerge from his monological rationalism, but at the same time time we see him argue that the clearest way to bring theory and practice into alignment is with more theory – rather than adopting ‘parsimonious’ explanations of the world we would be better off to develop rigorous and detailed accounts of the world.
Parsimony seems to be a popular term in the social sciences; it lets researchers develop concise theories that can be applied to particular situations, lets them isolate and speak about particular variables, and lends itself to broad(er) public accessibility of the theory in question. At the same time, theorists critique many such parsimonious accounts because they commonly fail to offer full explanations of social phenomena!
The complexity of privacy issues in combination with a desire for parsimony has been a confounding issue for privacy theorists. Nailing down what ‘privacy’ actually refers to has been, and continues to be, a nightmarish task insofar as almost every definition has some limiting factor. This problem is (to my mind) compounded when you enter online, or digital, environments where developing a complete understanding of how data flows across systems, what technical languages’ demands underlie data processing systems, and developing a comprehensive account of confidentiality and trust, are all incredibly challenging and yet essential for theorization. This is especially true when we think of a packet as being like post card (potentially one with its content encrypted) – in theory anyone could be capturing and analyzing packet streams and data that is held on foreign servers.
Colin Bennett, in his recent text The Privacy Advocates: Resisting the Spread of Surveillance, does a nice job creating a developing a typography for privacy advocates. Of a minor controversy, his text doesn’t include data protection commissioners as ‘privacy advocates’, even if they self-identify as such, on the basis that he wants to reflect on the roles that actors from civil society now play. Privacy, when understood in terms of regulatory capacity and relevant actors, cannot be sensibly talked about just in terms of ‘official’ advocates (e.g. data commissioners) because civil society is often deeply involved in the actions, reactions, and positions that the commissioners are forced to assume. In essence, privacy advocates are sometimes friends of, foes of, or ambivalent towards the privacy commissioners (I’d use another typography for this relationship, but I’ll wait for it to be publicly presented before talking about it here. It’s really snazzy though.).
Privacy advocates, in Bennett’s terms, are classified as such: