Transparent Practices Don’t Stop Prejudicial Surveillance

In February I’m attending iConference 2012, and helping to organize a workshop titled “Networked Surveillance: Access Control, Transparency, Power, and Circumvention in the 21st Century.” The workshop’s participants will consider whether networked surveillance challenges notions of privacy and neutrality, exploits openness of data protocols, or requires critical investigations into how these surveillance technologies are developed and regulated. Participants will be arriving from around the world, and speaking to one (or more) of the workshop’s four thematics: Access Control, Transparency, Power, and Circumvention. As part of the workshop, all participants must prepare a short position statement that identifies their interest in network surveillance while establishing grounds to launch a conversation. My contribution, titled “Transparent Practices Don’t Stop Prejudicial Surveillance,” follows.

Transparent Practices Don’t Stop Prejudicial Surveillance

Controversies around computer processing and data analysis technologies led to the development of Fair Information Practice Principles (FIPs), principles that compose the bedrocks of today’s privacy codes and laws. Drawing from lessons around privacy codes and those around Canadian ISPs’ surveillance practices, I argue that transparency constitutes a necessary but insufficient measure to mitigate prejudicial surveillance practices and technologies. We must go further and inject public values into development cycles while also intentionally hobbling surveillance technologies to rein in their most harmful potentialities.

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Deep Packet Inspection and Consumer Transparency

Image by David Clow

Rogers Communications modified their packet inspection systems last year, and ever since customers have experienced degraded download speeds. It’s not that random users happen to be complaining about an (effectively) non-problem: Rogers’ own outreach staff has confirmed that the modifications took place and that these changes have negatively impacted peer to peer (P2P) and non-P2P applications alike. Since then, a Rogers Communications senior-vice president, Ken Englehart, has suggested that any problems customers have run into are resultant of P2P applications themselves; no mention is made of whether or how Rogers’ throttling systems have affected non-P2P traffic.

In this brief post, I want to quickly refresh readers on the changes that Rogers Communications made to their systems last year, and also note some of the problems that have subsequently arisen. Following this, I take up what Mr. Englehart recently stated in the media about Rogers’ throttling mechanisms. I conclude by noting that Rogers is likely in compliance with the CRTC’s transparency requirements (or at least soon will be), but that such requirements are ill suited to inform the typical consumer.

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Distinguishing Between Mobile Congestions

by Simon TunbridgeThere is an ongoing push to ‘better’ monetize the mobile marketplace. In this near-future market, wireless providers use DPI and other Quality of Service equipment to charge subscribers for each and every action they take online. The past few weeks have seen Sandvine and other vendors talk about this potential, and Rogers has begun testing the market to determine if mobile customers will pay for data prioritization. The prioritization of data is classified as a network neutrality issue proper, and one that demands careful consideration and examination.

In this post, I’m not talking about network neutrality. Instead, I’m going to talk about what supposedly drives prioritization schemes in Canada’s wireless marketplace: congestion. Consider this a repartee to the oft-touted position that ‘wireless is different’: ISPs assert that wireless is different than wireline for their own regulatory ends, but blur distinctions between the two when pitching ‘congestion management’ schemes to customers. In this post I suggest that the congestion faced by AT&T and other wireless providers has far less to do with data congestion than with signal congestion, and that carriers have to own responsibility for the latter.

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Rogers, Network Failures, and Third-Party Oversight

Photo credit: Faramarz HashemiDeep packet inspection (DPI) is a form of network surveillance and control that will remain in Canadian networks for the foreseeable future. It operates by examining data packets, determining their likely application-of-origin, and then delaying, prioritizing, or otherwise mediating the content and delivery of the packets. Ostensibly, ISPs have inserted it into their network architectures to manage congestion, mitigate unprofitable capital investment, and enhance billing regimes. These same companies routinely run tests of DPI systems to better nuance the algorithmic identification and mediation of data packets. These tests are used to evaluate algorithmic enhancements of system productivity and efficiency at microlevels prior to rolling new policies out to the entire network.

Such tests are not publicly broadcast, nor are customers notified when ISPs update their DPI devices’ long-term policies. While notification must be provided to various bodies when material changes are made to the network, non-material changes can typically be deployed quietly. Few notice when a deployment of significant scale happens…unless it goes wrong. Based on user-reports in the DSLreports forums it appears that one of Rogers’ recent policy updates was poorly tested and then massively deployed. The ill effects of this deployment are still unresolved, over sixty days later.

In this post, I first detail issues facing Rogers customers, drawing heavily from forum threads at DSLreports. I then suggest that this incident demonstrates multiple failings around DPI governance: a failure to properly evaluate analysis and throttling policies; a failure to significantly acknowledge problems arising from DPI misconfiguration; a failure to proactively alleviate inconveniences of accidental throttling. Large ISPs’ abilities to modify data transit and discrimination conditions is problematic because it increases the risks faced by innovators and developers who cannot predict future data discrimination policies. Such increased risks threaten the overall generative nature of the ends of the Internet. To alleviate some of these risks a trusted third-party should be established. This party would monitor how ISPs themselves govern data traffic and alert citizens and regulators if ISPs discriminate against ‘non-problematic’ traffic types or violate their own terms of service. I ultimately suggest that an independent, though associated, branch of the CRTC that is responsible for watching over ISPs could improve trust between Canadians and the CRTC and between customers and their ISPs.

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Some Data on the Skype iPhone Application

SkypePhoneSkype is a polarizing product for telecom operators and customers. It is an application that lets customers abandon their historical phone services in favour of an encrypted Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) communications service that provides ‘free’ calls to computers and cheap rates when making a Skype-to-analogue/cellular phone service. For customers, it extends the choices presented to them and potentially reduces their monthly phone expenses.

The iPhone application for Skype has made headlines as telecom and smartphone manufacturers alike have actively and passively resisted, and ultimately relented, to permitting customers make Skype calls from their iPhones and other mobile devices. Apple has stated that they will not ‘jump through hoops’ to ensure that VoIP applications work through successive operating system updates, and AT&T’s poor data transmission systems likely made them somewhat hesitant to allow another bandwidth-heavy service onto their networks. What really got me interested in the Skype iPhone application, as a Canadian, was the following:

  1. Canadian customers can now install Skype on their iPhones;
  2. There was no place on the web that informed Skype users of how much data was consumed by the iPhone application when in use.

It was #2 that was particularly interesting. Canadian consumers tend to have fairly low default bandwidth caps with Rogers, the primary carrier of the iPhone in Canada, at 1GB in the basic iPhone plan. My thought was this: if the iPhone application actually consumed massive amounts of data Rogers would:

  1. Make a killing on the likely data overages as early adopters shifted over to Skype VoIP in favour of Rogers’ own voice services;
  2. If the application actually consumed a large amount of bandwidth, carriers might see it as ‘technically’ needing to be mediated using some system (perhaps deep packet inspection).

I started putting out feelers, and no one knew how much data the application consumed. Rogers claimed they didn’t know, nor did Apple. A contact on Twitter who worked as customer relations for Skype also doesn’t know the amount of data used, and the information was nowhere (that I could find) on the English-written web. Similarly, my international contacts were uncertain about data requirements. Fortunately, after an extended wait, I’ve finally received word from Skype’s customer service desks (my last ditch effort was to submit a support ticket). Here is how the relevant part of the email reads:

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