Technology, Thoughts & Trinkets

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Tag: deep packet inspection (page 1 of 9)

The Politics of Deep Packet Inspection: What Drives Surveillance by Internet Service Providers?

UVic CrestToday, I am happy to make my completed doctoral dissertation available to the public. The dissertation examines what drives, and hinders, wireline network practices that are enabled by Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) routers. Such routers are in wide use by Internet service providers (ISPs) in Canada, the United States, and United Kingdom, and offer the theoretical capacity for service providers to intrusively monitor, mediate, and modify their subscribers’ data packets in real or near-real time. Given the potential uses of the routers, I was specifically interested in how the politics of deep packet inspection intersected with the following issues: network management practices, content control and copyright, advertising, and national security/policing.

Based on the potential capabilities of deep packet inspection technologies – and the warnings that such technologies could herald the ‘end of the Internet’ as it is know by citizens of the West – I explored what has actually driven the uptake of the technology in Canada, the US, and the UK. I ultimately found that though there were variations in different states’ regulatory processes, regulators tended to arrive at common conclusions. Regulatory convergence stands in opposition to the divergence that arose as elected officials entered into the DPI debates: such officials have been guided by domestic politics, and tended to reach significantly different conclusions. In effect, while high-expertise regulatory networks reached common conclusions, elected political officials have demonstrated varying degrees of technical expertise and instead have focused on the politics of communications surveillance. In addition to regulators and elected officials, court systems have also been involved in adjudicating how, when, and under what conditions DPI can be used to mediate data traffic. Effectively, government institutions have served as the primary arenas in which DPI issues are taken up, though the involved government actors often exhibited their own interests in how issues were to be taken up or resolved. The relative role of these different state bodies in the case studies arguably reflects underlying political cultures: whereas regulators are principally involved in the Canadian situation, elected officials and courts play a significant role in the US, whereas the UK has principally seen DPI debates settled by regulators and elected officials.

Ultimately, while there are important comparative public policy conclusions to the dissertation, such conclusions only paint part of the picture about the politics of deep packet inspection. The final chapter of the dissertation discusses why the concepts of surveillance and privacy are helpful, but ultimately insufficient, to appreciate the democratic significance of deep packet inspection equipment. In response, I suggest that deliberative democratic theory can provide useful normative critiques of DPI-based packet inspection. Moreover, these critiques can result in practical policy proposals that can defray DPI-based practices capable of detrimentally stunting discourse between citizens using the Internet for communications. The chapter concludes with a discussion of how this research can be advanced in the future; while I have sought to clear away some of the murk concerning the technology, my research represents only the first of many steps to reorient Internet policies such that they support, as opposed to threaten, democratic values.

Formal Abstract:

Surveillance on the Internet today extends beyond collecting intelligence at the layer of the Web: major telecommunications companies use technologies to monitor, mediate, and modify data traffic in real time. Such companies functionally represent communicative bottlenecks through which online actions must pass before reaching the global Internet and are thus perfectly positioned to develop rich profiles of their subscribers and modify what they read, do, or say online. And some companies have sought to do just that. A key technology, deep packet inspection (DPI), facilitates such practices.

In the course of evaluating the practices, regulations, and politics that have driven DPI in Canada, the US, and UK it has become evident that the adoption of DPI tends to be dependent on socio-political and economic conditions. Simply put, market or governmental demand is often a prerequisite for the technology’s adoption by ISPs. However, the existence of such demand is no indication of the success of such technologies; regulatory or political advocacy can lead to the restriction or ejection of particular DPI-related practices.

The dissertation proceeds by first outlining how DPI functions and then what has driven its adoption in Canada, the US, and UK. Three conceptual frameworks, path dependency, international governance, and domestic framing, are used to explain whether power structures embedded into technological systems themselves, international standards bodies, or domestic politics are principally responsible for the adoption or resistance to the technology in each nation. After exploring how DPI has arisen as an issue in the respective states I argue that though domestic conditions have principally driven DPI’s adoption, and though the domestic methods of governing DPI and its associated practices have varied across cases, the outcomes of such governance are often quite similar. More broadly, I argue that while the technology and its associated practices constitute surveillance and can infringe upon individuals’ privacy, the debates around DPI must more expansively consider how DPI raises existential risks to deliberative democratic states. I conclude by offering some suggestions on defraying the risks DPI poses to such states.

Download ‘The Politics of Deep Packet Inspection: What Drives Surveillance by Internet Service Providers?’ (.pdf)

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

(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)

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)

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