Technology, Thoughts & Trinkets

Touring the digital through type

Tag: mass surveillance

The Governance of Telecommunications Surveillance

CIRA_Report_Cover-smallLast week I released a new report, The Governance of Telecommunications Surveillance: How Opaque and Unaccountable Practices and Policies Threaten Canadians, through the Telecommunications Transparency Project. The Project is associated with the Citizen Lab, an interdisciplinary laboratory based at the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto, and the report was funded through the Canadian Internet Registration Authorities’s .CA Community Investment Program.

The report examines how contemporary telecommunications surveillance is governed in Canada. In it, we ask how much telecommunications surveillance is occurring in Canada, what actors are enabling the surveillance, to what degree those actors disclose their involvement in (and the magnitude of) surveillance, and what degree of oversight is given to the federal governments’ surveillance practices. We conclude that serious failures in transparency and accountability indicate that corporations are failing to manage Canadians’ personal information responsibly and that government irresponsibility surrounding accountability strains its credibility and aggravates citizens’ cynicism about the political process. In aggregate, these failings endanger both the development of Canada’s digital economy and aggravate the democratic deficit between citizens and their governments.

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Background to North American Politics of Deep Packet Inspection

crtc566The CRTC is listening to oral presentations concerning Canadian ISPs’ use of Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) appliances to throttle Canadians’ Internet traffic. Rather than talk about these presentations in any length, I thought that I’d step back a bit and try to outline some of the attention that DPI has received over the past few years. This should give people who are newly interested in the technology an appreciation for why DPI has become the focus of so much attention and provide paths to learn about the politics of DPI. This post is meant to be a fast overview, and only attends to the North American situation given that it’s what I’m most familiar with.

Massive surveillance of digital networks took off as an issue in 2005, when the New York Times published their first article on the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping operations. The concern about such surveillance brewed for years, but (in my eyes) really exploded as the public started to learn about the capacities of DPI technologies as potential tools for mass surveillance.

DPI has been garnering headlines in a major way in 2007, which has really been the result of Nate Anderson’s piece, “Deep packet inspection meets ‘Net neutrality, CALEA.” Anderson’s article is typically recognized as the popular news article that put DPI on the scene, and the American public’s interest in this technology was reinforced by Comcast’s use of TCP RST packets, which was made possible using Sandvine equipment. These packets (which appear to have been first discussed in 1981) were used by Comcast to convince P2P clients that the other client(s) in the P2P session didn’t want to communicate with Comcast subscriber’s P2P application, which led to the termination of the data transmission. Things continued to heat up in the US, as the behavioural advertising company NebuAd began partnering with ISPs to deliver targeted ads to ISPs’ customers using DPI equipment. The Free Press hired Robert Topolski to perform a technical analysis of what NebuAd was doing, and found that NebuAd was (in effect) performing a man-in-the-middle attack to alter packets as they coursed through ISP network hubs. This report, prepared for Congressional hearings into the surveillance of Americans’ data transfers, was key to driving American ISPs away from NebuAd in the face of political and customer revolt over targeted advertising practices. NebuAd has since shut its doors. In the US there is now talk of shifting towards agnostic throttling, rather than throttling that targets particular applications. Discrimination is equally applied now, instead of honing in on specific groups.

In Canada, there haven’t been (many) accusations of ISPs using DPI for advertising purposes, but throttling has been at the center of our discussions of how Canadian ISPs use DPI to delay P2P applications’ data transfers. Continue reading