German Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) manufacturer, ipoque, has produced a white paper titled “Deep Packet Inspection: Technology, Applications & Network Neutrality.” In it, the company distinguishes between DPI as a technology and possible applications of the technology in a social environment. After this discussion they provide a differentiated ‘tiering’ of various bandwidth management impacts on network neutrality. In this post I offer a summary and comment of the white paper, and ultimately wonder whether or not there is an effective theoretical model, grounded in empirical study, to frame or characterize network neutrality advocates.
The first thing that ipoque does is try and deflate the typically heard ‘DPI analysis = opening a sealed envelop’ analogy, and argue that it is better to see packets as postcards, where DPI analysis involves looking for particular keywords or characters. In this analysis, because the technology cannot know of the meaning of what is being searched for, the DPI appliances cannot be said to violate one’s privacy given the technology’s lack of contextual awareness. I’ve made a similar kind of argument, that contextual meaning escapes DPI appliances (though along different lines) in a paper that I presented earlier this year titled “Moving Across the Internet: Code-Bodies, Code-Corpses, and Network Architecture,” though I think that its important to recognize a difference between a machine understandingsomething itself versus flagging particular words and symbols for a human operator to review. Ubiquitous, “non-aware,” machine surveillance can have very real effects where a human is alerted to communications – its something of a misnomer to say that privacy isn’t infringed simply because the machine doesn’t know what it’s doing. We ban and regulate all kinds of technologies because of what they can be used for rather than because the technology itself is inherently bad (e.g. wiretaps).
I’ll be chatting with Chris Cook tomorrow between 5:00-5:20 or so about deep packet inspection, network neutrality, and the Canadian situation. This will be the second time that I’ve had the opportunity to talk with Chris, and it’s always a pleasure. Hit Gorilla Radio’s posting for more information.
I’d just like to publicly thank the University of Victoria’s Communications department for their assistance these past few weeks. They’ve been wonderful in letting various media outlets around the country know about my research, which has let me disclose my research more widely then normal. UVic’s level of support to their graduate students is absolutely amazing – I’d highly recommend that any graduate student interested in a Canadian institution take a look at their offerings. UVic rocks!
In this post, I want to try to lay out where I see some of the Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) discussions. This is to clarify things in my head that I’ve been thinking through for the past couple of days and to lay out for readers some of the ‘bigger picture’ elements of the DPI discussion (as I read them). If you’ve been fervently following developments surrounding this technology, then a lot of what is below is just rehashing what you know – hopefully the summary is useful – but if you’re relatively unfamiliar with what’s been going on this might help to orient what’s been, and is being, said.
Participants and Themes
The uses of DPI appliances are regularly under fire by network neutrality advocates, privacy advocates, and people who are generally concerned about communication infrastructure. DPI lets network operators ‘penetrate’ data packets that are routed through their networks and this practice is ‘new’, insofar as prior networking appliances were generally prevented from inspecting the actual payload, or content, of the data packets that are shuttled across the ‘net. To make this a bit clearer, when you send email it is broken into a host of little packets that are reassembled at the destination; earlier networking appliances could determine the destination, the kind of file being transmitted (e.g. a .mov or .jpeg), and so forth but they couldn’t accurately identify what content was in the packet (e.g. the characters of an email message held within a packet). Using DPI, network operators can now (in theory) configure their DPI appliances to capture the actions that users perform online and ‘see’ what they are doing in real time.
A little while ago I was talking about network neutrality and Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) technologies with a person interested in the issue (shocking, I know), and one of the comments that I made went something like this: given the inability of DPI technologies to effectively crack encrypted payloads, it’s only a matter of time until websites start to move towards secure transactions – in other words, it’s only a matter of time until accessing websites will involve sending encrypted data between client computers and servers.
The Pirate Bay and Beyond
Recently, Sweden passed a bill that allows for the wiretapping of electronic communications without a court order. This caused the Pirates Bay, a well-known BitTorrent index site, to announce that it was adding SSL encryption to their website as well as VPN solutions for native Swedes who wanted to avoid the possibility of having their network traffic surveyed. Recently, isohunt.com has done the same, and other major torrent sites are expected to follow the lead. The groups who are running these websites are technically savvy, allowing them to implement encrypted access rapidly and with little technical difficulty, but as more and more sites move to SSL there will be an increasing demand amongst tech-savvy users that their favorite sites similarly protect them from various corporate and government oversight methods.