February 27, 2011

Wiretapping Net Neutrality

Came across an interesting article the other day on NPR. The article talked about the difficulty in implementing a wiretapping law in the age of the communication capabilities of the Internet. The audio is embedded below.

Tapping Neutral Networks

In the old days of wired telephony, communication happened when a fixed wire carried voice from the speaker to the listener. Wiretapping during this era was literally tapping a wire. The fact that communication took a pre-determined route between the participants made wire-tapping technically simple.

It was this pre-determined route for communications that, during cold-war, led to the development of the Internet. Ironically, the original requirement for the internet (having no fixed path, and therefore no single failure point) makes intercepting communications that much more difficult.

Communication on the Internet is a vague concept. Anything can be, and is, communication. Sending email, downloading files, instant messaging, viewing websites, watching video or having conversations via Skype - it is all a form of communication. Not to mention the continuous chatter of all the devices on the network, constantly talking to each other. Hence any law that deals with eavesdropping is challenged by a target that is designed to withstand the very thing that is required of it. The NPR article does a great job of identifying the problems of any intercept solution - loss of security, misuse, and the loss of privacy.

Network Neutrality

I think there is another aspect, that links back to the idea of network neutrality. The nature of network neutrality means that anyone can build a tool that can use the Internet to communicate. With the widespread availability of communication and encryption libraries, means that building a small tool that can only communicate with copies of itself is trivial. The only way to prevent this would be to prevent the user of the Internet by applications that are not explicitly authorized.

In other words, a neutral network, makes successful eavesdropping extremely difficult, if not impossible. The only way to have an "Intercept Solution" that works is to have a network that is directly involved in what is flowing across it. Forget corporate greed stratifying the Internet. In the long run, it might still be the need to eavesdrop that might trump the case for network neutrality.

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