Recommended Books from 2011 Readings

BookDespite some cries that the publishing industry is at the precipice of financial doom, it’s hard to tell based on the proliferation of texts being published year after year. With such high volumes of new works being produced it can be incredibly difficult to sort the wheat from the chaff.  Within scholarly circles it (sometimes) becomes readily apparent what books are above middling quality by turning to citation indices, but outside of such (often paywall protected) circles it can be more challenging to ascertain what texts are clearly worth reading and which are not.

While I can hardly claim to speak with the weight of scholarly indices, I do read (and rate) a prolific number of texts each year. In what follows, I offer a list of the ‘best’ books that I read through 2011. Some are thought-provoking, others were important in how I understood various facets of the policy process, and still others offer interesting tidbits of information that have until now been hidden in shadow. For each book I’ll identify it’s main aim and a few points about what made the book compelling enough to get onto my list. Texts are not arranged in any particular ranking order and all should be available through your preferred book seller.

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Security, Hierarchy, and Networked Governance

UnlockedThe capacity for the Internet to route around damage and censorship is dependent on there being multiple pathways for data to be routed. What happens when there are incredibly few pathways, and when many of the existing paths contain hidden traps that undermine communications security and privacy? This question is always relevant when talking about communications, but has become particularly topical given recent events that compromised some of the Internet’s key security infrastructure and trust networks.

On March 22 2011, Tor researchers disclosed a vulnerability in the certificate authority (CA) system. Certificates are used to encrypt data traffic between parties and to guarantee that security certificates are actually issued to the parties holding them. The CA system underpins a massive number of the Internet’s trust relationships; when individuals log into their banks, some social networking services, and many online email services, their data traffic is encrypted to prevent a third-party from listening into the content of the communication. Those encrypted sessions are made possible by the certificates issued by certificate authorities. The Tor researchers announced that an attacker had compromised a CA and issued certificates that let the attacker impersonate the security credentials associated with many of the world’s most prominent websites. Few individuals would ever detect this subterfuge. In effect, Tor researchers discovered that a central element of the Internet’s trust network was broken.

In this post I want to do a few things. First, I’ll briefly describe the attack and its accompanying risks. This will, in part, see me briefly discuss modes of surveillance and motivations for different gradients of surveillance. I next address a growing problem for today’s Internet users: the points of trust we depend on, such as CAs and the DNS infrastructure, are increasingly unreliable. As a result, states can overtly or subtly manipulate to disrupt or monitor their citizens’ communications. Finally, I suggest that in spite of these points of control, states are increasingly limited in their capacities to unilaterally enforce their will. As a consequence of networked governance, and its accompanying power structures, citizens can impose accountability on states and limit their ability to (re)distribute power across and between nodes of networks. Thus, networked governance not only transforms state power but redistributes (some) power to non-state actors, empowering those actors to resist illegitimate state actions.

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Technology and Politics in Tunisia and Iran: Deep Packet Surveillance

Middleeast-IranFor some time, I’ve been keeping an eye on how the Iranian government monitors, mediates, and influences data traffic on public networks. This has seen me write several posts, here and elsewhere, about the government’s usage of deep packet inspection, the implications of Iranian government surveillance, and the challenges posed by Iranian ISPs’ most recent network updates. Last month I was invited to give a talk at the Pacific Centre for Technology and Culture about the usage of deep packet inspection by the Iranian and Tunisian governments.


Faced with growing unrest that is (at least in part) facilitated by digital communications, repressive nation-states have integrated powerful new surveillance systems into the depths of their nations’ communications infrastructures. In this presentation, Christopher Parsons first discusses the capabilities of a technology, deep packet inspection, which is used to survey, analyze, and modify communications in real-time. He then discusses the composition of the Iranian and Tunisian telecommunications infrastructure, outlining how deep packet inspection is used to monitor, block, and subvert encrypted and private communications. The presentation concludes with a brief reflection on how this same technology is deployed in the West, with a focus on how we might identify key actors, motivations, and drivers of the technology in our own network ecologies.

Note: For more information on the Iranian use of deep packet inspection, see ‘Is Iran Now Actually Using Deep Packet Inspection?

Is Iran Now Actually Using Deep Packet Inspection?

Photo by Hamed Saber

I’ve previously written about whether the Iranian government uses deep packet inspection systems to monitor and mediate data content. As a refresher, the spectre of DPI was initially raised by the Wall Street Journal in a seriously flawed article several years ago. In addition to critiquing that article, last year I spent a while pulling together various data sources to outline the nature of the Iranian network infrastructure and likely modes of detecting dissident traffic.

Since January 2010, the Iranian government  may have significantly modified their network monitoring infrastructure. In short, the government seems to have moved from somewhat ham-fisted filtering systems (e.g. all encrypted traffic is throttled/blocked) to a granular system (where only certain applications’ encrypted traffic is blocked). In this post I’ll outline my past analyses of the Iranian Internet infrastructure and look at the new data on granular targeting of encrypted application traffic. I’ll conclude by raising some questions that need to be answered about the new surveillance system, and note potential dangers facing Iranian dissidents if DPI has actually been deployed.

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Dispelling FUD: Iran and ISP Surveillance

Since the election of incumbent president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the world has witnessed considerable political tension in Iran. Protests over the questionable electoral results, beatings and deaths of political protestors, recurring protests by Iranians associated with the Green Revolution, and transmissions of information amongst civil- and global-actors have been broadcast using contemporary communications systems. Twitter, blogs, Facebook, and mobile phone video has enabled Iranians to coordinate, broadcast, and receive information. The existence of Web 2.0 infrastructure has set the conditions under which the Green Revolution operates.

The Iranian government quickly recognized the power of cheap social coordination technologies and, in response, drastically reduced the capacity of national Internet links – the government, in effect, closed the nation’s Internet faucet, which greatly reduced how quickly data could be transmitted to, and received from, the ‘net as a whole. This claim is substantiated by Arbor Networks’ (Internet) border reports, which demonstrate how, immediately after the presidential election, there was a plummet in the data traffic entering and exiting the nation. (It should be noted that Arbor is a prominent supplier of Deep Packet Inspection equipment.)

Prior to trying to dispel the Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt (FUD) surrounding the contemporary Iranian ISP-surveillance system that is regularly propagated by the media, I need to give a bit of context on the telecommunications structure in Iran.

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