Net Neutrality and Wiretapping

For a long while now, I’ve thought that the whole debate on net neutrality was mostly an attempted at legislating a late-land-grab for the big telecoms. Basically, they have realized that to control the Internet means control of the future of media distribution, which television has proven is a sure-fire way to make a lot of money. Along that line, I had also assumed that the political push to allow said land-grab to occur, by people such as the ridiculous Ted Stevens, was prompted by the massive campaign contributions made by the telecommunications industry. (For example, AT&T is the second biggest campaign donor of all time, and Mr. Steven’s #1 donor.)

And I’m sure that’s still a major part of the case. But what if there’s also something else here that’s helping dissolve political will for net neutrality on Capitol Hill? Schneier posts about the beginnings of attempts to expand the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA) to include things like SMS, Pischner-talkie, and Voice Over IP (VOIP). What’s the relation?

A natural result of a neutral network is that wiretapping and other forms of covert communication interception - by law enforcement or otherwise - is easily made impossible. Since a neutral network like the current Internet contains little or no knowledge as to what is connected to it, the functionality is all contained within the devices attached to the network. This is the feature that drives the innovation on the Internet. Somebody figured out how to convert voice into a form that can be sent over the Internet in close-enough-to-real-time, and suddenly VOIP became a reality with Vonage and Skype and all the others.

So what happens if you add encryption to the VOIP hardware or software? The network doesn’t care, and all that is required is a marginal bit of work at the endpoints, and your calls are now guaranteed by mathematics to be private from all eavesdroppers. And these days, encryption is so good that it is doubtful whether even the vaunted NSA can decipher even occaisional messages, let alone in the bulk needed to effectively monitor phone conversations. (Schneier has a good overview on VOIP threats and encryption and why it’s important. Definitely worth a read.)

You can probably see where I’m going. A neutral network, coupled with fairly easy-to-add end-to-end encryption, means that regardless of whether or not CALEA is expanded, law enforcement would simply not be able to monitor phone conversations. The law would be a moot point unless Congress decides to make it criminal to produce end-to-end encryption software and hardware for communications covered by CALEA. Requiring backdoors into those systems, however, is a tremendously bad idea for a multitude of reasons. It has been tried before, and was basically a legislative, commercial, and enforcement debacle.

But what if the network isn’t neutral? Suddenly, your Skype/Vonage/insert-favorite-VOIP-product-here no longer works as well as that offered by Verizon/AT&T/insert-phone-company-here, which puts tremendous market pressure to move to a service owned by one of the big telecoms. They can advertise encryption, too, but suddenly it becomes much easier and lucrative to cooperate with law enforcement and provide methods of breaking that encryption. Those people who choose to continue using their now-inferior VOIP products because they either understand and prefer the privacy proffered by the encryption or have something to hide can be easily located and singled out for additional scrutiny.

This latter situation is no different than the situation in which we live today, where the networks are owned by very large corporations, and we all know it is possible to be eavesdropped upon, and most of us don’t care because “we have nothing to hide,” or “have done nothing wrong.”

So maybe I sound like some crazy conspiracy theorist. I’m not really saying that there have been deals made and agreements reached or anything. I am saying that the outcome of the net neutrality debate may have unexpected consequences on law enforcement’s ability to monitor communications; and that regardless of whether it is a pre-desired outcome of the way the net neutrality debate seems to be heading, it will likely come to pass regardless because it at least makes it possible.