(Draft) ANPR: Code and Rhetorics of Compliance

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For roughly the past two years I’ve been working with colleagues to learn how Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) systems are used in British Columbia, Canada’s westernmost province. As a result of this research one colleague, Rob Wipond, has published two articles on how local authorities and the RCMP are using ANPR technologies. Last February I disclosed some of our findings at the Reboot privacy and security conference, highlighting potential uses of the technology and many of the access to information challenges that we had experienced with respect to our research. Another, Kevin McArthur has written several pieces about ANPR on his website over the years and is largely responsible for Rob and I getting interested, and involved, in researching the technology and the practices associated with it.

The most recent piece of work to come out of our research is a paper that I, Joseph Savirimuthu, Rob, and Kevin have written. Joseph and I will be presenting it in Florence later this month. The paper, titled “ANPR: Code and Rhetorics of Compliance,” examines BC and UK deployments of ANPR systems to explore the rationales and obfuscations linked to the programs. The paper is presently in a late draft so if you have any comments or feedback then please send it my way. The abstract is below, and you can download the paper from the Social Sciences Research Network.


Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) systems are gradually entering service in Canada’s western province of British Columbia and are prolifically deployed in the UK. In this paper, we compare and analyze some of the politics and practices underscoring the technology in these jurisdictions. Drawing from existing and emerging research we identify key actors and how authorities marginalize access to the systems’ operation. Such marginalization is accompanied by rhetorics of privacy and security that are used to justify novel mass surveillance practices. Authorities justify the public’s lack of access to ANPR practices and technical characteristics as a key to securing environments and making citizens ‘safe’. After analyzing incongruences between authorities’ conceptions of privacy and security, we articulate means of resisting intrusive surveillance practices by reshaping agendas surrounding ANPR.

Download paper from the Social Sciences Research Network

UPDATE: The paper is now published in the European Journal of Law and Technology

Data Privacy Day and Anonymity

While I haven’t posted much this month, it isn’t because I’m not writing: it’s because what I’m writing just doesn’t seem to pull together very well and so I have 4 or 5 items held in ‘draft’. See, I’ve been trying to integrate thoughts on accessible versus technically correct understandings of technology as it relates to privacy, and to issues on public relations and the use of FUD by privacy activists, and what I think of the idea of ‘anonymity’ in digital environments that are increasingly geared to map, track, and trace people’s action. Given that it’s the data privacy day, I thought that I should try to pull some of thoughts together, and so today I’m going to draw on some of those aforementioned ideas and, in particular, start thinking about anonymity in our present digitally networked world.

To take the ‘effort’ to try and remain anonymous requires some kind of motivation, and in North America that motivation is sorely lacking. North America isn’t Iran or China or North Korea; Canadians, in particular, have a somewhat envious position where even with the government prorogued – a situation that, were it to happen in Afghanistan would have pundits and politicians worrying about possibilities of tyranny and violence – there isn’t a perception that Canadians ought to be fearful that proroguement heralds the beginning of a Canadian authoritarian state, or the stripping of Charter rights and freedoms. This said, I think that people in the West are realizing that, as their worlds are increasingly digitized, their ‘analogue’ expectations of privacy are not, and have not for some time, been precisely mirrored in the digital realm. This awareness is causing worry and consternation, but is not yet (and may never be) sufficient for wide-scale adoption of anonymization technologies. Instead, we have worry without (much) action.

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Draft: What’s Driving Deep Packet Inspection in Canada?

routingpacketsFor the past few weeks I’ve been working away on a paper that tries to bring together some of the CRTC filings that I’ve been reading for the past few months. This is a slightly revised and updated version of a paper that I presented to the Infoscape research lab recently. Many thanks to Fenwick Mckelvey for taking the lead to organize that, and also to Mark Goldberg for inviting me to the Canadian Telecom Summit, where I gained an appreciation for some of the issues and discussions that Canadian ISPs are presently engaged in.


Canadian ISPs are developing contemporary netscapes of power. Such developments are evidenced by ISPs categorizing, and discriminating against, particular uses of the Internet. Simultaneously, ISPs are disempowering citizens by refusing to disclose the technical information needed to meaningfully contribute to network-topology and packet discrimination discussions. Such power relationships become stridently manifest when observing Canadian public and regulatory discourse about a relatively new form of network management technology, deep packet inspection. Given the development of these netscapes, and Canadian ISPs’ general unwillingness to transparently disclose the technologies used to manage their networks, privacy advocates concerned about deep packet networking appliances abilities to discriminate between data traffic should lean towards adopting a ‘fundamentalist’, rather than a ‘pragmatic’, attitude concerning these appliances. Such a position will help privacy advocates resist the temptation of falling prey to case-by-case analyses that threaten to obfuscate these device’s full (and secretive) potentialities.

Full paper available for download here. Comments are welcome; either leave them here on the blog, or fire something to the email address listed on the first page of the paper.

Privacy Advocates and Deep Packet Inspection: Vendors, ISPs, and Third-Parties

sandvinetestnetwork[I recently posted a version of this on another website, and thought that it might be useful to re-post here for readers. For a background on Deep Packet Inspection technologies, I’d refer you to this.]

There is a very real need for various parties who advocate against Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) to really work through what Packet Inspection appliances have done, historically, so that their arguments against DPI are as precise as possible. Packet Inspection isn’t new, and it’s not likely to be going away any time soon – perimeter defences for networks are essential for mitigating spam and viruses (and rely on Medium Packet Inspection).

I’m in no way an expert in the various discussions surrounding DPI (though I try to follow the network neutrality, privacy, and communications infrastructure debates), but I have put together a paper that attempts to clarify the lineage of DPI devices and (briefly) suggest that DPI can be understood as a surveillance tool that is different from prior packet inspection technologies. From a privacy perspective (which is where I sit in relation to the deployment of DPI), it’s important for privacy advocates to understand that approaching the issue from a principle-based approach is fraught with problems at legal, theoretical, and practical levels. The complexities of developing a principle-based approach is one of the reasons why many contemporary privacy scholars (myself included) have opted for a ‘problem-based’ approach to identifying privacy infringements. What, exactly, do most advocates mean when they say that their privacy is ‘violated’? I don’t think that a clear position comes out in the advocate position (maybe it does, and I’m just not aware of it) – they appear to allude to a fundamental right to privacy, while pointing to specific instances as ‘violations’ of that right. The worry with principled approaches is that they are challenged to fully capture what we mean when we say something is private, and equally challenged to capture contextualized social norms of privacy (e.g. streetview in the US versus Japan, bodily privacy in differing cultures, etc etc).

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Deep Packet Inspection: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

goodbaduglyIn 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.

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