Thursday, July 30, 2009

Legislation to Limit "Deep Packet Inspection" Debated

A few weeks ago I wrote two fairly extensive posts on "deep packet inspection" (DPI) technology, Iran and China's usage of it to monitor its citizens and stifle dissent, American and European company's development and sale of this freedom crushing technology to those nations, the threat that it poses to consumer privacy (and the Internet itself) in OUR country, and how it all ties back to our own little Constitutional crisis known as warrantless wiretapping (read my post from a few weeks back on the latest revelations on that subject).

I suppose the good news is, and the reason I've chosen to do a third post on the subject, is Congress apparently has been paying attention to recent developments. Who knows exactly what it was that triggered this concern, but the technology has been getting a fair amount of not so good press coverage lately, including Amy Goodman's op-ed that was published on the topic a few weeks back, as well as her interview of Josh Silver, executive director of Free Press - an expert on the subject.

Before I get to the article about the legislation currently being debated in a Congressional subcommittee that would limit this technologies usage, let me detail briefly what it is again:

DPI technology is capable of tracking Internet communications in real time, monitoring the content, and deciding which messages or applications will get through the fastest. Further, the Iranians appear to be using DPI "to not only block communication but to monitor it to gather information about individuals, as well as alter it for disinformation purposes." And, the Chinese government is believed to be using it to implement its "Great Firewall," "widely considered the most advanced and extensive censoring in the world" -- an "arrangement that depends on the cooperation of all the service providers."

Now to the article in Top Tech News:

With more and more consumers always being warned about their identity being stolen, the federal government is looking at more ways to protect the actual identity of consumers. Earlier this year, the U. S. House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee held a hearing looking into what's known in the tech world as "deep packet inspection." If passed by Congress, the legislation would severely limit how Internet service providers monitor their customers.


"It also enables better compliance by Internet service providers with warrants authorizing electronic message intercepts by law enforcement. But its privacy intrusion potential is nothing short of frightening. The thought that a network operator could track a user's every move on the Internet, record the details of every search and read every e-mail or attached document is alarming," Rep. Boucher said.

Boucher thinks the legislation could be crafted to give law enforcement the ability to use deep packet inspection, but limit the uses when it comes to so-called "behavioral advertising." Behavior advertising has long been favored by some companies as a way to more effectively spend their advertising dollars. Instead of wasting money in places where ads will not be read by consumers, companies can tweak and target their ad messages more effectively, thus getting more for their advertising dollar.


"Will 'Big Brother' be watching? Will Internet companies gather and sell the information from all of us as an aggregated whole? Will they take our individual information and sell it marketers or worse?" he asked.

"Deep packet inspection will have a broad impact on the Internet," said Ben Scott, policy director of Free Press, the Center for Democracy and Technology and the Electronic Privacy Center in front of the House Subcommittee. "Without this technology, everything you do is sent through the network anonymously. E-mail, sports scores, and family photos -- the network doesn't know or care what you're doing. But with deep packet inspection, it's a whole new ballgame. This technology can track every click. Once a network owner can see what you are doing, they have the power to manipulate your online experience. They can sell your personal information to advertisers. They can block content. They can slow things down or speed things up," said Scott.

Click here to read the article in its entirety.

I'll be keeping an especially close eye on how this legislation progresses. Anytime a technology comes along with these kinds of privacy downsides, its critical to step in early with tough consumer protections. Its always harder to do so after the fact. There is no word yet as to when this legislation could come up for a vote, but lawmakers are hoping to have the legislation through Congress by the end of the summer.

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