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Would you want the government to read your mail?

A new technology makes it possible to screen Internet traffic.

A magnifying glass shows details of a letter sent by British author J.R.R. Tolkien to his friend George Sayer at Christie's in central London, November 1, 2001. (Ferran Paredes/Reuters)

SAN FRANCISCO — Imagine if postal workers could X-ray every letter and parcel to ascertain their contents without slowing down the mail. It might not be possible in the physical world, but it now is in cyberspace.

With that power comes the ability to help stop Internet viruses and limit the availability of objectionable content. But it also raises digital-age versions of familiar concerns about the dangers posed to free speech and privacy.

The process is called deep packet inspection technology and it allows Internet services providers to screen content flowing through their networks. All Internet traffic, from movies to e-mails, is broken down and shipped in a stream of data packets that might be likened to a group of letters.

Government authorities in the United States, Europe and Canada are grappling with the applications and implications of this filtering capability as watchdog groups are calling for greater regulation fearing abuse of the technology.

Network operators might have good reasons to install such systems to help block viruses and better manage the flow of traffic, said U.S. Congressman Rick Boucher in an April 23 hearing he called before a subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives. There could also be advanced commercial reasons for monitoring packets, such as controlling illegal movie downloads or delivering advertising relevant to a user's traffic patterns.

But, added Boucher, a Democrat from Virginia, “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.”

Packet inspection has obvious political implications and human rights groups say repressive governments are taking advantage of the technology. Reporters without Borders, a non-governmental organization that fights censorship, has said that China and Tunisia use packet inspection to find prohibited speech.

Privacy organizations have called attention to the technology and pressured government authorities to curb or regulate the process. “How does society reconcile the technological benefits and privacy implications of new technology?” asks the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada on a Web site exploring and explaining the implications of deep packet inspection.