"Deep Packet Inspection" Means Deep Trouble
Today's column digs into "deep packet inspection" -- an ongoing, automated, detailed inspection of your online traffic conducted to gain a better idea of your interests and to display ads that better match those interests.
My colleagues have been following this issue for a while -- see, for example, Ellen Nakashima's piece last week, which covered the House Committee on Energy and Commerce's research into the tests several Internet providers made of Silicon Valley startup NebuAd's deep-packet-inspection system.
The basic concept of deep packet inspection ("DPI," to some) creeps me out. I'll stipulate that somebody could build a DPI system that strictly limited its scrutiny to innocuous topics that people happily discuss in public all the time, and which rigorously guarded the identities of users (indeed, NebuAd vows that its system does exactly those things). Customers might even jump to use such a system if it knocked a few bucks off their monthly bills, as Slate's Farhad Manjoo observed earlier this week.
But we're not living in a hypothetical universe in which everything runs exactly as designed and is operated by people and companies with the highest ethical standards. You have to consider how a DPI system would perform when the inevitable mistakes are made: Would it fail gracefully, with minimal collateral damage, or would it fail badly? (For an in-depth discussion of this concept of failing badly -- which I think is an excellent way to assess any new technology -- see security expert Bruce Schneier's book "Beyond Fear.")
In that light, deep packet inspection looks like yet another example of technological overreach -- taking a decent idea and stretching it to its irrational, unsustainable extreme. And it's likely to fare no better than such earlier misadventures as, for example, the movie industry's crusade to lock up video downloads with "digital rights management" controls and Microsoft's attempts to stamp out software piracy with automated enforcement software.
If you can think of a scenario in which you'd accept deep packet inspection, let me know in the comments. Or talk to me during today's Web chat, starting at 2 p.m.
August 21, 2008; 10:14 AM ET
Categories: Gripes , The Web
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