War for the Web
03 10.12

Deep Packet Inspection – You live in public.

Deep Packet Inspection allows network operators — whether they are private company infrastructure, government networks, or your Internet Service Provider — to monitor the traffic that passes through their network. It’s sort of a catchall phrase for a variety of different technologies some that monitor traffic, some that prevent certain kinds of traffic, some that simply monitor traffic, some that intercept traffic and re-write it, and some even that capture all traffic that passes through a network and saves it for scrutiny, processing, and law enforcement requests.

We often hear about Deep Packet Inspection in the context of dictatorships and foreign governments monitoring their citizens. For example, in Egypt, Mubarak used DPI to spy on dissidents and activists. In Libya, good old Moe collected data on all of the country’s Internet users. China uses DPI in it’s great firewall to monitor traffic entering and exiting the country, and to censor traffic within China.

We normally associate DPI with these kinds of highly controlled totalitarian regimes, but the fact is DPI is used almost everywhere. In the United Kingdom, DPI was used in the run up to the Olympics to monitor traffic for threats. Since then, a law has been proposed that would ask ISPs to retain user information — IP logs, emails, correspondence — for a year. It isn’t any better here in the United States. Most ISPs already use some kind of DPI technology to prevent malware attacks and spam, but what they track and keep is set to increase.

A recent Ars Technica article lays it out quite clearly, the “Cybersecurity Act of 2012 would have pushed for larger use of systems like NetFalcon and other DPI-based systems that provide “continuous monitoring” within government. It would have explicitly given private network operators the go-ahead  to survey their networks and share information collected that might have some bearing on cybersecurity with the Department of Homeland Security and other agencies. The bill was filibustered by Republicans because of regulations it put on industry, but parts of the bill may be pushed forward by the Obama administration as part of an executive order.

If this doesn’t upset you, it should. We aren’t talking about targeted enforcement on known terrorists, or anything like that, we’re talking about keeping a log of what everyone does, all the time so that if need be law enforcement can reference it in building a case against you. It’s Big Brother 0n steroids.

Now you may have noticed that Republicans filibustered the bill, mostly because it’s costly. This is quite true, but only to a degree. Monitoring network traffic is not expensive. In fact, systems exist within the realm of possibility for enterprise business that can reconstruct an entire transaction at 10 gigabits per second, which should allow them to view everything happening on their network in real time. Retaining network traffic is where the process gets tricky. The sheer mass of information being passed along most of these networks makes retaining all of it far too expensive, but there are systems that analyze traffic in real time, and keep only anomalies or traffic necessary to reconstruct certain events. Effectively, the cost of retaining network traffic is dropping, because companies are getting smarter about what to retain.

So what does this mean for you, the consumer? You should assume that everything you are doing on the Internet is being monitored by at least your ISP. If you work for a company, or attend a university, you can bet that they’re monitoring and collecting your traffic as well. You have no privacy online, and in fact, despite wiretapping laws and telecommunications privacy laws, the government has stated that it will collect all information that passes through government networks, and expects private industry to do the same.

It also means that the infrastructure needed to censor certain kinds of speech on the Internet are already in place, and that mass censorship could be accomplished very quickly and inexpensively. All stuff to consider when you laud the Internet as a bastion of free speech and opportunity. You can check out the Ars article for more details.

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