[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).
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.
Don Reisinger’s posting on Pro-privacy initiatives are getting out of hand is a good read, even if I don’t think that he ‘gets’ the reason why privacy advocates are (should be?) concerned about Google Streetview. If you’ve been under a rock, Google is in the process of sending out cars (like the one at the top of this post) to photograph neighborhoods and cities. The aim? To let people actually see where they are going – get directions, and you can see the streets and the buildings that you’ll be passing by. It also lets you evaluate how ‘safe’ a neighborhood is (ignoring the social biases that will be involved in any such estimation) and has been talked about as a privacy violation because some people have been caught on camera doing things that they didn’t want to be caught doing.
Don: Privacy Wimps Stand Up, Sit Down, and Shut Up
Don’s general position is this: American law doesn’t protect your privacy in such a way that no one can get one or take a photo of your property. What’s more, even if you were doing something that you didn’t want to be seen in you home, and if that action was captured by a Google car, don’t worry – no one really cares about you. In the new digital era, privacy by obscurity relies on poor search, poor image recognition, and even less interest in what you’re doing. Effectively, Streetview will be used to watching streets, and little else. Continue reading