Features

net.wars: Threat model

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 13 March 2009


It's not about Phorm, it's about snooping. At Wednesday morning's Parliamentary roundtable, "The Internet Threat", the four unhappy representatives I counted from Phorm had a hard time with this. Weren't we there to trash them and not let them reply? What do you mean the conversation isn't all about them?

Wendy M Grossman

We were in a committee room many medieval steps up unside the House of Lords. The gathering, was convened by Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer with the idea of helping Parliamentarians understand the issues raised not only by Phorm but also by the Interception Modernisation Programme, Google, Microsoft, and in fact any outfit that wants to collect huge amounts of our data for purposes that won't be entirely clear until later.

Most of the coverage of this event has focused on the comments of Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the indefatigable creator of the 20-year-old Web (not the Internet, folks!) who said categorically, "I came here to defend the integrity of the Internet as a medium."

Using the Internet, he said, "is a fundamental human act, like the act of writing. You have to be able to do it without interference and/or snooping." People use the Internet when they're in crisis; even just a list of URLs you've visited is very revealing of sensitive information.

Other distinguished speakers included Professor Wendy Hall, Nicholas Bohm representing the Foundation for Information Policy Research, the Cambridge security research group's Richard Clayton, the Open Rights Group's new executive director, Jim Killock, and the vastly experienced networking and protocol consultant Robb Topolski.

The key moment, for me, was when one of the MPs the event was intended to educate asked this: "Why now?" Why, in other words, is deep packet inspection suddenly a problem?

The quick answer, as Topolski and Clayton explained, is "Moore's Law." It was not, until a couple-three years ago, possible to make a computer fast enough to sit in the middle of an Internet connection and not only sniff the packets but examine their contents before passing them on. Now it is. Plus, said Clayton, "Storage."

But for Kent Ertegrul, Phorm's managing director, it was all about Phorm. The company had tried to get on the panel and been rejected. His company's technology was being misrepresented. Its system makes it impossible for browsing habits to be tracked back to people. Tim Berners-Lee, of all people, if he understood their system, would appreciate the elegance of what they've actually done.

Berners-Lee was calm, but firm. "I have not at all criticised behavioral advertising," he pointed out. "What I'm saying is a mistake is snooping on the Internet."

Right on.

The Internet, Berners-Lee and Topolski explained, was built according to the single concept that all the processing happens at the ends, and that the middle is just a carrier medium. That design decision has had a number of consequences, most of them good. For example, it's why someone can create the new application of the week and deploy it without getting permission. It's why VOIP traffic flows across the lines of the telephone companies whose revenues it's eating. It is what network neutrality is all about.

Susan Kramer, saying she was "the most untechie person" (and who happens to be my MP), asked if anyone could provide some idea of what lawmakers can actually do. The public, she said, is "frightened about the ability to lose privacy through these mechanisms they don't understand".

Bohm offered the analogy of water fluoridation: it's controversial because we don't expect water flowing into our house to have been tampered with. In any event, he suggested that if the law needs to be made clearer it is in the area of laying down the purposes for which filtering, management, and interference can be done. It should, he said, be "strictly limited to what amounts to matters of the electronic equivalent of public health, and nothing else."

Fluoridation of water is a good analogy for another reason: authorities are transparent about it. You can, if you take the trouble, find out what is in your local water supply.

But one of the difficulties about a black-box-in-the-middle is that while we may think we know what it does today – because even if you trust, say, Richard Clayton's report on how Phorm works (PDF) there's no guarantee of how the system will change in the future.

Just as, although today's government may have only good intentions in installing a black box in every ISP that collects all traffic data, the government of ten years hence may use the system in entirely different ways for which today's trusting administration never planned. Which is why it's not about Phorm and isn't even about behavioural advertising; Phorm was only a single messenger in a bigger problem.

So the point is this: do we want black boxes whose settings we don't know and whose workings we don't understand sitting at the heart of our ISPs' networks examining our traffic? This was the threat Baroness Miller had in mind – a threat *to* the Internet, not the threat of the Internet beloved of the more scaremongering members of the press.

Answers on a postcard…


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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).