Last week my advisor, Dr. Colin Bennett, and I launched a new website that is meant to provide Canadians with information about how their Internet Service Provider (ISP) monitors data traffic and manages their network. This website, Deep Packet Inspection Canada, aggregates information that has been disclosed on the public record about how the technology is used, why, and what uses of it are seen as ‘off limits’ by ISPs. The research has been funded through the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada’s contributions program.
Deep packet inspection is a technology that facilitates a heightened awareness of what is flowing across ISP networks. It has the ability to determine the protocols responsible for shuttling information to and from the Internet, the applications that are used in transmitting the data, and (in test conditions) can even extract elements of data from the application layer of the data traffic in real time and compare it against other packet signatures to block particular data flows based on the content being accessed. Additionally, the technology can be used to modify packet flows using the technology – something done by Rogers – but it should be noted that DPI is not presently used to prevent Canadians from accessing particular content on the web, nor is it stopping them from using P2P services to download copywritten works.
Last week I was a participant at the COUNTER: Counterfeit and Piracy Research Conference in Manchester, UK. I was invited to be part of a panel on deep packet inspection by Joseph Savirimuthu, as well as enjoy the conference more generally. It was, without a doubt, one of the best conferences that I have attended – it was thought-provoking and (at points) anger-inducing, good food and accommodations were provided, and excellent discussions were had. What I want to talk about are some of the resonating themes that coursed through the conference and try to situate a few of the positions and participants to give an insight into what was talked about.
The COUNTER project is a European research project exploring the consumption of counterfeit and pirated leisure goods. It has a series of primary research domains, including: (1) frequency and distribution of counterfeits; (2) consumer attitudes to counterfeit and pirated goods; (3) legal and ethical frameworks for intellectual property; (4) policy options for engaging with consumers of counterfeit; (5) the use of copyrighted goods for the creation of new cultural artifacts; (6) impacts of counterfeiting and control of intellectual property.
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.
Over the past little while there has been considerable attention focused on Virgin Media’s decision to trial Detica’s CView copyright monitoring system. This system uses Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) technology to identify data protocols and likely files that are being transferred in order to generate a Copyright Infringement Index (i.e. a ‘Piracy Index’). As outlined by Detica, CView will let ISPs work with content creators to determine whether ISPs providing content through their portals lead to reductions in ‘infringing’ transfers of content through P2P file sharing.
The story about Detica’s involvement really broke with Chris Williams’ piece over at the Register entitled, “Virgin Media to trial filesharing monitoring system.” In the piece, he recognized that the trial will encompass roughly 40% of Virgin’s customers, that the aim is to measure overall levels of filesharing rather than identify individual customers, and (at least initially) will focus on music. After I read the piece, I send some questions off to Detica and posted them (“Virgin to Use DPI to ID Copyright Infringement“) based on my reading of Williams’ piece and Detica’s consultation paper, and shortly thereafter followed up with Detica’s responses and thoughts on CView and privacy infringements (“Update to Virgin Media and Copyright DPI“). Between the posting of my questions, and the response from Detica, Richard Clayton had a meeting with representatives from Detica and posted the information they released to him over at Light Blue Touchpaper in a posting “What does Detica Detect?” The Register was also able to get face time with people working at Detica, leading Williams to produce his second piece “Spook firm readies Virgin Media filesharing probes.”
In the rest of this post, I want to pull together the information that has come to light so that we can get a better picture of what is known about CView. As such, this is very much a summary rather than an analytic post; hopefully I’ll have time to delve the information more critically in the near future.
Recently, I’ve heard back from Detica about CView and wanted to share the information that Detica has been provided. CView is the copyright detection Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) appliance that Virgin Media will be trialling, and is intended to measure the amount of copyright infringing files that cross Virgin’s network. This index will let Virgin determine whether the content deals they sign with content producers have a noticeable impact on the amount of infringing P2P traffic on their network. Where such deals reduce infringements, then we might expect Virgin to invest resources in agreements with content producers, and if such agreements have no impact then Virgin’s monies will likely be spent on alternate capital investments. I’ll note up front that I’ve sent some followup questions to seek additional clarity where the answers I received were somewhat hazy; such haziness appears to have been from a miscommunication, and is likely attributable to a particular question that was poorly phrased. Up front, I will state that I’m not willing to release the name of who I’m speaking with at Detica, as I don’t think that their name is needed for public consumption and would be an inappropriate disclosure of personal information.
The key question that is lurking in my own mind – if not that of others interested in the CView product – is whether or not the appliance can associate inspected data flows with individuals. In essence, I’m curious about whether or not CView has the ability to collect ‘personally identifiable information’ as outlined by the Privacy Commissioner of Canada in her recent findings on Bell’s use of DPI. In her findings, the Commissioner argues that because Bell customers’ subscriber ID and IP address are temporarily collated that personal information is being collected that Bell does collect personal information.
Late last week The Register reported that Virgin Media is going to be trialling Detica’s Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) appliances to measure the levels of copyright-infringing file sharing that is occurring along Virgin Media’s networks. It’s important to note a few things right up front:
- I have a request in to the company manufacturing these appliances, Detica, and have been promised responses to my questions. In light of this, I’m not accusing Detica or Virgin Media of engaging in any ‘privacy invasive’ uses of DPI, at least not at the moment.
- The information that I’ll drawing on is, largely, from a consultation paper that Detica presented in late September of 2009.
- This post is largely meant as a ‘let’s calm down, and wait to hear about the technology’s details’ before suggesting that a massive campaign be mounted against what might be a relatively innocuous surveillance technology.
With that stated…
Detica describes themselves as a “business and technology consultancy specialising in helping clients collect, manage and exploit information to reveal actionable intelligence. As the digital revolution causes massive amounts of data to converge with a new generation of threats, many of our clients see this as one of their greatest challenges.” Their CView DPI system is meant to let ISPs better identify the amount of copyright infringing work that is coursing across their networks, in an effort to give ISPs better metrics as well as to determine whether arrangements between ISPs and content providers has a significant, measurable effect on the transfer of copyright infringing files.