Saturday, January 15, 2011

Free Speech and Internet Privacy Armageddon- ipv6

Ok, this is my third (and final?) post in the present series re: erosion of internet privacy, (and the necessarily-related and coterminous threat to constitutionally guaranteed Free Speech that it represents).  Coming on the heels of the Tucson Az. shooting spree by a mentally disturbed gunman who killed six and critically injured Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ), (among others, see Jan. 10, 2011 post on subject), the timing of this post, while not planned, is especially apt in light of recent and subsequent calls by various public officials to "clamp down" on alleged "hate-filled," "divisive" and "extremist" rhetoric from the political right which they assert was, if not a causal factor to this act of unspeakable violence, at least a significant contributing factor, (in spite of no evidence whatsoever to back up such assertions, and indeed, much evidence to the contrary, see Jan. 13, 2011 "Dubya Dupnik" posting on this blog by yours truly :). 

Here, however, we are dealing with the potential constitutionally "chilling" effect on free speech that new internet standards rolling out may pose by way of the new technology's ability to conclusively and individually identify every internet-capable device and hence to track and monitor every publicly spoken, (and perhaps not so publicly spoken) utterance made by anyone through the internet, (no matter how lawful, innocuous, or private the nature of such communications).

A lot of the background and "philosophical" underpinning, if you will, that undergirds the right to free speech (and is equally the basis for our entire democratic and free enterprise system by the way) I will not readdress, as it has already been addressed in prior posts and seems to me so basic so as to not require repetition.

Rather, we will now get down to a very real, specific example of how "advances" in the most fundamental technology undergirding how the internet works can be used to track and potentially stifle the Free Speech rights of those with opinions that may dissent from the government or the "majority view" at any given time.  Of course, it goes without saying that the freedom to criticize one's own government without fear of reprisal is the hallmark of a free society, (indeed, so important was a free press considered to our Republic by our Founders that it was specifically referred to at the Philadelphia Consitutional convention even before becoming part of our federal Bill of Rights, see here and often referred to as the "Fourth Branch" of the federal government).

It is important to note before getting into all the details that our concerns are not necessarily with specific reference to the Obama Administration, (although obviously, the recent policy and regulatory changes do concern us, see previous posts); Rather, our focus is on the threat to free speech that these changes in fundamental internet technology pose not just under the present administration but future ones vis a vis how such technology and accompanying or new "security" laws and/or regulations may be interpreted and enforced by courts and future Administrations alike and the resulting danger to our democracy and body politic that could result;

Indeed, if there is anything that history teaches us it is that threats to our freedoms often come from well-meaning laws and government regulations that are not always apparent at the time they are instituted, (essentially the immutable law of unintended consequences).  In that regard we are mindful of the admonition of Benjamin Franklin that "those who trade liberty for security end up with neither" (paraphrased).

So with that in mind, just what is "ipv6" and how could it pose such a threat?  That requires a bit of background and a short primer on computer and "internet protocol" technology and nomenclature.

First, the "ip" part of "ipv6" is short for "internet protocol."  What is this?  Simply put, it is the fundamental way that computer networks and devices identify and "communicate" with each other when you transmit information, (i.e. "surf"), over the internet.  Basically it is the "address" by which other computers know where to send information, (much the way the mailman knows where to send everyone's mail by their home address but in a digitized, electronic format your computer, router or smart phone can interpret, (for more detailed info click here ).

The "version six" in ipv6 represents the development level of the technology the same way that most popular software is designated to identify the version that it is, (say for instance regarding a popular browser, Firefox 3.0 v. 2.0).  Ipv6 replaces version ipv4 which has been in use since the 1980's as the global standard but for which modification was necessary to accomodate growth in internet usage worldwide, (there is an intermediate internet protocol version "5" which was for the most part considered experimental and never widely implemented, and an envisioned version "8" still in the infant stages of development).

Basically, due to the explosion of technology and internet capable devices in use among the world's six billion or so inhabitants, the number of available "addresses" for such devices should be depleted early this year. (While not relevant to our discussion this is partly due to the rise and increased financial clout of the middle class in formerly under-developed countries like India and China, and also the inherent limitations in ipv4's shorter data strings which "only" allow for a maximum of  4.3 billion ip addresses, compared to ipv6 which allows  for a mind boggling minimum of at least a trillion times more, click here for a more detailed explanation

In large part due to the anticipated exhaustion of available "ip addresses" under upv4, the use of "Network Address Translation," a process whereby many different internet capable devices can access the internet under one, main ip address, has become widely implemented with both drawbacks and, depending on the context and who you ask, advantages, (see   ).  

The part relevant to our discussion here is that, regardless of the "internet protocol" version used, every time you get on the internet via computer, ipad, smart phone or any other device, one of these "internet protocol" addresses is assigned to your connection, (either one that is "static" (fixed) or randomly assigned from a "pool" of addresses utilized by your ISP, an addressing paradigm called "dynamic" addressing, for more info on this click here   ).

However, by the very nature of internet protocol technology, your "ip" address can and does reveal much data about your "connection" that could be "personally identifiable," (such as your or your internet provider's general location, browser, referrer and system info). Which brings us to the penultimate difference (and potential threat to free speech) that the newer "internet protocol" version 6 which is gradually being implemented on an internet-wide scale poses, (slated for implementation as of the first of this year, but due to the immensity of hardware updates that will be required in the networks of countless businesses, educational institutions and government agencies ipv6 will take some time to fully implement).

As alluded to above, due mainly to the numerically limited number of addresses inherent in its technology, under the older "ipv4" system predominantly in use at present, common internet access or "gateway" points such as Internet Service Providers (ISP's) or network routers allow all the computers (or devices) accessing the internet through that ISP or network router to "share" the same ip address for communicating over the internet using Network Address Translation, (i.e. N.A.T., see above).  Because under ipv4 the use (and data) of each particular device or computer on a network cannot be separated individually from the other computers or devices in use on the network, all the individual devices (and device users) are afforded a certain level of anonymity by essentially "hiding in open view" among the other devices accessing the internet on that network.

Therefore, anyone wishing to follow or "snoop" on your activities in cyberspace, (such as posting on this blog :)  could not be sure of your identity by simply "following" your internet activities from your desktop, to ipad, to smartphone, (you could, after all, simply be one person of many on a given network or using your internet service provider's "dynamic" ip assigned you from their "pool" at the time you signed on).

Under ipv6, however, every single internet capable device you own will be assigned its own unique ip address.  Moreover, every internet capable device has, due to its own individual M.A.C. (Machine Access Control) number hard coded into it, the capability to be conclusively identified with a digital "fingerprint" in very much the same way that a human fingerprint can be used to identify individuals.   

In short, and quite simply, through combining identification of your devices's "MAC" address with your ip address and internet history, your internet service provider, (and, in the case of using wireless, virtually anyone with knowhow), could potentially both monitor and individually identify your every move and content of your "transmissions" in cyberspace in a way so as to personally identify you, virtually eliminating anonymity from internet speech and causing the strong potential for an according "chilling" of the speech rights of individuals not willing to risk exercising their First Amendment rights to speak out freely if it means their identity could be positively identified.

One does not have to be a rocket scientist to figure out the implications of this vis a vis the recent decision of the Federal Communications Commission to, for the first time ever, regulate the internet in much the same way they do telephone companies of old, (for examples of how the government has previously exercised its "regulatory" authority over phone companies, including monitoring phone calls of individual citizens through phone companies without any court order or oversight, see the following links , ).

Accordingly, while previously your surfing habits and the content that you email, tweet, im, post on a blog, etc. was between only you and your ISP, for the first time ever the new internet protocol standards now allow such information, at least theoretically, to potentially be accessed by government actors without court orders or probable cause of any crime committed and to track and identify the beliefs, purchases, and internet habits of anyone they choose.

One doesn't need to be imaginative to think of the effect this could have on journalists charged with bringing us the facts we need to be informed citizens, (a task so important the Founders often referred to a free press as "the fourth branch of government,"), whistleblowers of government corruption, crime, or just the ability of the average every-day-Joe to express his disapproval of government policies without fear of retributions or recriminations (from the government or otherwise.  Indeed, during a time in which "conservative political rhetoric" has at least been partly blamed by some on the political left who think Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was "targeted" by the gunman in the Tucson attacks due to her political positions and vote on such things as the Obama Administration's health care "reform" bill, we don't think it's a stretch to posit that a plausible fear from, and perhaps even probability of, recriminations for political expression, whether from extreme partisans who disagree with you-- witness the hacking of Sarah Palin's email by the son of a Democratic leader-- mentally disturbed individuals or more "official" sources such as government agents, could not occur.  (Nor, as must necessarily be obvious to those who suscribe to the political left's initial theories regarding the motives behind the attack on Congresswomen Giffords, is it a stretch that this could pose an actual threat to persons who express "unpopular" or disfavored opinions).  As such there are extremely important public policy reasons to favor anonymity in internet speech.  

Indeed, and of most salient concern to us here at the A.C.L.P., for the first time in the history of the web your beliefs and internet history can now and with precision be attributed to you individually along with personally identifying information such as your real name, actual address, employment, and ultimately whatever other information of yours the government wishes to "harvest," (much in the way marketers are already doing, see  ).

Now before you go getting totally freaked out, as is usually the case there is often a beneficial (i.e. "innocent") justification for the change or "advancement" of the technology proffered as necessary, (albeit sometimes with unintended consequences, as above noted), and it is no different here.

Such information "harvested" by the government could undoubtedly be potentially beneficial and have legitimate governmental uses, (such as preventing acts of terrorism).   

However, our concern is that such information, (including any or all of the above-mentioned "personally identifying" information), could also be saved and/or added to information in any number of other government databases such as social security, drivers license bureaus, and the like and used to track the beliefs and expressions of political opinion of literally millions of people to be exploited in unintended and potentially unlawful (or even dictatorial) ways that could jeopardize citizens' right to Free Speech. Indeed, such information could potentially be utilized in ways that would make the oppression under the totalitarian government in George Orwell's classic and famous novel "1984" look tame by comparison.  

And let's be frank.   It is not as if there is no precedent for such things occurring.  

In addition to the scandal during the Bush Administration over certain journalists inexplicably being added to the U.S. governments "no fly" terrorist watch list ( LINK) or phone companies at the governments behest "monitoring" international calls of American citizens without probable cause or court oversight, (see ), one need only look at China to see the potential dangers in using such capabilities to oppress its citizens see link ,   (If you still don't see the danger just ask student protestors or democratic activists whose internet activity was "monitored" before being arrested in order to stop "subversive" demonstrations or activities that could undermine the totalitarian regime).  

Now granted, China is a communist country which routinely tracks and monitors the internet activities of all its citizens and we are a democracy with a First Amendment, but again, history has shown us that whenever government has the ability to expand its power unchecked without restraint it usually ends up doing so to the detriment of its citizens, (and as a result could, at least theoretically, be replicated here or in any modern, industrialized country, see examples above).  

Please understand, we are not saying that this definitely will happen, or even that developers won't fully and properly address whether and to what extent the new ipv6 standards as implemented will in the end actually allow such invasions of privacy, (see developer's debate at                                                      ); but to the extent that international organizations like the United Nations seem unable (or unwilling) to eschew the approval of dictatorial regimes like North Korea or China, (that bastion of open society and freedom of speech), we are concerned, (for what China has to do with the matter at hand see China's publically announced position on this matter at                                                          ).

At this juncture and in the spirit of full disclosure it should be said that full understanding and analysis of all the technological details underlying implementation of ipv6 is beyond both the mission and technological knowledge of the ACLP.   Such matters we gladly leave to others more learned.

And we certainly realize there will be those who, for their own purposes or interests or just because we DO live in a free country which guarantees them the right to see things differently, may disagree with our concerns or conclusions of potential abuse. (Though, as pointed out above, for those who remain unconvinced of the danger or capability of government to individually identify and track the internet activities and political/ free speech of its citizens China is certainly a perfect case study; just ask any of the Tianamen Square protestors, outlawed home bible study leaders or those who have dared to dissent from the official "party line" of the government who used the Chinese "internet" before being subsequently brutally beaten and jailed for merely exercising First Amendment rights which many of us take for granted.).

For our part, all we can do, using this wonderful technological medium which we in the modern age are privy to and the information it provides to those so inclined, is try to effectively publicize the concerns of those more knowledgeable than ourselves in the hopes to stimulate public discussion and debate on such important issues.

So indeed, while all the technical details may be a bit beyond our purview and mission, the wider potential ramifications to society and the freedoms we in the "Western" world enjoy IS within the mission of the ACLP.  Indeed, based on the previously expressed concerns by developers themselves over the privacy implications of ipv6, we remain dedicated to shine a light on such concerns as are raised here so our leaders and those responsible for implementing the new standard will take action to insure that our sancrosanct rights to Free Speech will be protected in the rollout of this new internet technology, (or, for that matter, any other technology that threatens the First Amendment).

In that light, it is our earnest hope that by spurring the ensuing debate and discourse in our body politic which we hope to promote with our small contribution it will lead to our elected leaders and/or those with more technologically savvy and the knowhow and influence to make a difference intervening before it's too late and the cause of liberty suffers to the derogation of our democratic Republic.

Indeed, the serious potential harm to the liberty of our citizens to remain free to express their opinions without fear of reprisal or recriminations, even in spite of all the technological "advancements" and benefits to our modern world that ipv6 promises, would, in our view, be a particularly poor trade, (which is why we have addressed it here).

With your help we can hopefully avert any such problems and render all our concerns moot.  In fact, nothing would make us happier here at the A.C.L.P. than to be assured that the free speech rights of all Americans, regardless of political pursuasion, continue to be fully protected in their expression and that potential collateral encroachment of new technologies such as ipv6 upon our basic liberties would be restricted in this era of ever-expanding governmental power.

It is for that that we strive, and ask all to join us in this worthy cause.  Indeed, with the ever-increasing march of technology and the conflict that sometimes poses to the cause of freedom the future of our sancrosanct liberty to freely speak and criticize our government may just be at stake.   jp

No comments:

Post a Comment