UN's International Telecommunications Union sets out to standardize bulk surveillance of Internet users by oppressive governments

The International Telecommunications Union, a UN agency dominated by veterans of incumbent telcoms who mistrust the Internet, and representatives of repressive governments who want to control it, have quietly begun the standardization process for a kind of invasive network spying called "deep packet inspection" (DPI). Other standards bodies have shied away from standardizing surveillance technology, but the ITU just dived in with both feet, and proposed a standard that includes not only garden-variety spying, but also spying "in case of a local availability of the used encryption key(s)" -- a situation that includes the kind of spying Iran's government is suspected of engaging in, when an Iranian hacker stole signing keys from the Dutch certificate authority DigiNotar, allowing for silent interception of Facebook and Gmail traffic by Iranian dissidents.

The ITU-T DPI standard holds very little in reserve when it comes to privacy invasion. For example, the document optionally requires DPI systems to support inspection of encrypted traffic “in case of a local availability of the used encryption key(s).” It’s not entirely clear under what circumstances ISPs might have access to such keys, but in any event the very notion of decrypting the users’ traffic (quite possibly against their will) is antithetical to most norms, policies, and laws concerning privacy of communications. In discussing IPSec, an end-to-end encryption technology that obscures all traffic content, the document notes that “aspects related to application identification are for further study” – as if some future work may be dedicated to somehow breaking or circumventing IPSec.

Several global standards bodies, including the IETF and W3C, have launched initiatives to incorporate privacy considerations into their work. In fact, the IETF has long had a policy of not considering technical requirements for wiretapping in its work, taking the seemingly opposite approach to the ITU-T DPI document, as Germany pointed out in voicing its opposition to the ITU-T standard earlier this year. The ITU-T standard barely acknowledges that DPI has privacy implications, let alone does it provide a thorough analysis of how the potential privacy threats associated with the technology might be mitigated.

These aspects of the ITU-T Recommendation are troubling in light of calls from Russia and a number of Middle Eastern countries to make ITU-T Recommendations mandatory for Internet technology companies and network operators to build into their products. Mandatory standards are a bad idea even when they are well designed. Forcing the world’s technology companies to adopt standards developed in a body that fails to conduct rigorous privacy analysis could have dire global consequences for online trust and users’ rights.

Adoption of Traffic Sniffing Standard Fans WCIT Flames [CDT]