Tracing the Network, Tracing the NSA

NSA EagleIn many ways, I can credit the NSA along with the excellent reporting of Nate Anderson for why I’m so interested in surveillance technologies. In particular, when the story broke in 2005 that the NSA was likely engaged in massive wiretaps of domestic and international data traffic I was drawn to the power and capacity for the ‘net to be used for truly broad-based surveillance efforts. This interest was heightened when Nate published the first of a set of articles on deep packet inspection (DPI) for Ars Technica. Without these two key moments, along perhaps with some interesting reporting on copyright, I’d probably still be thinking through the conditions of ontological psychology through a Heideggerian or Hegellian lens.

Given that I am engaged in research into surveillance technologies, and have the absolute pleasure to be associated with truly excellent scholars, activists, advocates, collaborators, and friends who share similar research interests, I wanted to take a moment to ask you, my readers, to help us map data traffic. As you may be aware, the NSA is reputed to have installed systems in various networking hubs that lets them examine massive amounts of data traffic. It’s not entirely known how they inspect this traffic, or the algorithms that are used to parse the fire hose of data they must be inundated by, but researchers at the University of Toronto have a decent idea of what ‘carrier hotels’, or major Internet exchange/collocation points, have likely been compromised by NSA surveillance instruments.

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Deep Packet Inspection and the Confluence of Privacy Regimes

insiderouterI learned today that I was successful in winning a Social Sciences and Human Research Council (SSHRC) award. (Edit September 2009: I’ve been upgraded to a Joseph Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarship). Given how difficult I found it to find successful research statements (save for through personal contacts) I wanted to post my own statement for others to look at (as well as download if they so choose). Since writing the below statement, some of my thoughts on DPI have become more nuanced, and I’ll be interested in reflecting on how ethics might relate to surveillance/privacy practices. Comments and ideas are, of course, welcomed.

Interrogating Internet Service Provider Surveillance:
Deep Packet Inspection and the Confluence of International Privacy Regimes

Context and Research Question

Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are ideally situated to survey data traffic because all traffic to and from the Internet must pass through their networks. Using sophisticated data traffic monitoring technologies, these companies investigate and capture the content of unencrypted digital communications (e.g. MSN messages and e-mail). Despite their role as the digital era’s gatekeepers, very little work has been done in the social sciences to examine the relationship between the surveillance technologies that ISPs use to survey data flows and the regional privacy regulations that adjudicate permissible degrees of ISP surveillance. With my seven years of employment in the field of Information Technology (the last several in network operations), and my strong background in conceptions of privacy and their empirical realization from my master’s degree in philosophy and current doctoral work in political science, I am unusually well-suited suited to investigate this relationship. I will bring this background to bear when answering the following interlinked questions in my dissertation: What are the modes and conditions of ISP surveillance in the privacy regimes of Canada, the US, and European Union (EU)? Do common policy structures across these privacy regimes engender common realizations of ISP surveillance techniques and practices, or do regional privacy regulations pertaining to DPI technologies preclude any such harmonization?

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