Would you want the government to read your mail?

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.


In the European Union, consumer commissioner Meglena Kuneva recently opened an inquiry to determine how widely packet inspection was being instituted and how this might affect privacy and consumer protection. The new process will be a focal point of her concern that technology is giving advertisers too much power. “Can the knowledge of some of your personal circumstances, say your financial status or health condition ever translate into pressure'?” asked Kuneva, a Bulgarian, in a March 31 speech on “Online Data Collection, Targeting and Profiling.”

The April congressional hearings were not the United States' first run-in with packet inspection. In 2007, public interest groups told the Federal Communications Commission that cable Internet provider Comcast was using the technology to slow down service to users who exchanged huge files, presumably videos. A divided FCC subsequently ordered Comcast to stop. Last year, hearings in both houses of Congress, spurred by activist groups, forced a startup called NebuAd to halt plans to target consumers with advertising based on insights gained by monitoring data packets.

While such rebuffs have made U.S. network operators cautious about deploying packet monitoring, the providers think such systems can help them deliver advertising, among other possible uses, and want ground rules so they can proceed.

“If AT&T deploys these technologies and processes, it will do so in the right way,” chief privacy officer Dorothy Attwood testified at the House hearings in April. Kyle McSlarrow, president of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, told the committee that packet inspection could serve many “pro consumer purposes” including advanced forms of parental control.

Activist critics like Ben Scott, policy director of FreePress.org, countered that the packet inspection could become “a mechanism of precise surveillance and content control.” Leslie Harris, president of the Center for Democracy and Technology, told U.S. lawmakers one of their first tasks should be to discover and make public how extensively and for what purposes ISPs may already be using packet inspection technology.

Congressman Boucher said he called the April hearing as a springboard for future inquiries and potential legislation. Meanwhile, packet inspection continues to evolve faster than public policy, making electronic communications potentially readable by digital screening technologies.

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