[LINK] Geoff Huston, 'All Your Packets Belong to Us'

stephen at melbpc.org.au stephen at melbpc.org.au
Sat Jul 7 04:54:33 AEST 2012

The ISP Column: A column on all things Internet        

"All Your Packets Belong to Us"

 By Geoff Huston  July 2012 

What Happened ...

On the 18th June, it was reported on an Australian users' forum, 
Whirlpool, that whenever a Telstra mobile data service user contacted a 
web site, then some 250ms later the same web site URL was fetched from a 
different source address. 

It appeared that somehow this third party was stalking the mobile data 
user, visiting all the same web sites as the user, in every case shortly 
after the user. 


This third party was reported to be on the IP addresses and These addresses are used by Slicehost, who appears to be a 
hosting service provider located in San Antonio, Texas in the US.

Other users reported on the same behaviour, and it quickly became evident 
that this was a more general behaviour that had been quietly introduced 
by this national carrier without any form of notice to their users. 

The observed behaviour was that all URLs used by end users of their 
mobile network, whether private or public, were being passed across to 
this US-based third party, who in turn were repeating the original access 
call to the visited URL, if the URL was a novel URL. 

There was some speculation in the forum on the particular motives were 
driving Telstra to stalk its users in this manner, and some speculation 
that Telstra was attempting to monetize its user's browsing behaviour by 
on-selling this user behaviour data to a foreign third party.

Perhaps we are just being too sensitive about privacy. 

On the other hand maybe we are not sensitive enough, as it is certainly 
the case that there are incredibly strong business cases that justify 
spending large money in order to peek over the shoulders of users and 
intrude into their activities, not only to understand their behaviour but 
to influence their future behaviours. 

If anyone is in doubt about the true value of user behaviour data and how 
to influence future behaviour, then perhaps a read through New York Times 
article on "How Companies Learn Your Secrets" may be useful at this point.

In response to an accusation of unethical behaviour on the part of 
Telstra, a local industry publication, SC Magazine, reported the 

"But in a short statement, Telstra’s senior media boss Craig Middleton 
said the company’s wireless network management assured that “there is 
nothing untoward in what the Whirlpool member has observed - it is a 
normal network operation”."


To attempt to brush off such accusations of invasion of a user's 
reasonable expectations of privacy in their use of a public carriage 
network in such a cavalier and off-hand manner was a less than brilliant 
move by company executive who was purportedly the head of their media 
unit. This close stalking of user behaviour is anything but "normal 
network operation." Perhaps the best way to fuel further speculation 
about dark motives and conspiracies is to attempt to brush it off with an 
obvious lie. And that is precisely what Telstra did.

At this point the speculation was that the observed user stalking 
behaviour was the result of Telstra selling off a real time feed of each 
user's browsing history to a US-based marketing company. This theory 
gathered a lot of credibility in discussion forums in the space of a few 

It was also apparent that this was not something that individual users 
could opt out of. It appeared that this was a behaviour that appeared to 
be imposed on the users' browsing behaviour in all of Telstra's mobile 
data services.

A few days later, on the 26th June, it was reported that:

"Telstra has confirmed it is tracking websites visited by its mobile 
users in the lead up to a launch of a new web filtering solution.
Days after suspicions of Telstra's networking monitoring activity was 
first aroused, the telco has revealed it captures web addresses visited 
by millions of subscribers on its Next G network.
The addresses are compared to a blacklist of criminal sites curated by 
web filtering company Netsweeper, and held both in Australia and the US.
And at the same time Telstra rushed out a new set of terms and conditions 
for its data services with a new feature called "Smart Controls," 
complete with a collection of spelling errors in the revised document 
that pointed to a lack of proofreading and perhaps certain level of haste 
and possibly panic on the part of Telstra.

At this point things became political. Greens Senator Scott Ludlam was 
reported as saying that sending even anonymised traffic offshore could 
have serious privacy implications. He was reported to have said:

"It is potentially problematic. Anything in the US is subject to the 
Patriot Act, even if the data is anonymised, or sent as batches."
The US Patriot Act, introduced in 2001, grants the US Government wide-
ranging powers to access any user data stored within the US for 
intelligence purposes.

The mainstream press also picked up the story, and Telstra was now on the 

ABC News Headlines, 27 June 2012

The last word in this particular episode goes to Telstra, who made the 
following comment:

"Firstly, it’s crucial for me to point out that our customers’ trust is 
the most important thing to us, so upon hearing concerns about the 
development of our new cyber-safety product we have stopped all 
collection of website addresses for its development.
We’ve made this decision as part of our acknowledgement that more 
consultation was needed before launching this service."


What's the problem?

Telstra was developing a new service for their users that would allow 
users a more secure experience. They started the basic data collection 
for this new service, and users complained. Telstra said that they had 
stopped the program and noted customers' concerns. What's the problem?

Or, perhaps being ever so slightly cynical, Telstra was developing a new 
product that would allow them to charge a premium to users who were 
willing to opt in, and commenced a data gathering exercise that accessed 
public web sites. Again, what's the problem?

With a touch more cynicism one could surmise that they were attempting to 
address a natural concern that many parents have over the extent to which 
their children can access entirely inappropriate content using their 
mobile device and they were attempting to exploit this concern by 
introducing a premium product for mobile data users. 

But often one person's exploitation is another's useful service, and it 
could certainly be argued that these concerns are indeed very real and 
perfectly valid, and if this product meets a consumer need, and its an 
opt-in service, then, once more, what's the problem?

I believe that there is a problem here. And its embedded in the evolving 
attitudes we have related to in our respect for an individual's privacy.

More specifically, it seems to me that somehow we've managed to cross a 
dangerous line in the last few years about the role of a common carrier 
in today's digital environment.

It used to be that telephone carriers operated under the ethos, if not 
the entirety of a comprehensive regulatory framework, of a common 

Within the Australian framework employees of Australian public 
telecommunications carriers used to be required to sign a statement 
indicating that they were aware of the provisions of the Australian 
Telecommunications Act, and that divulging the contents of user's 
activities as they passed across the public carriage network, or indeed 
divulging any information relating to customer's use of the network, or 
tapping into customers' use of the network for reasons other than 
operational necessity, exposed the individual employee to criminal 

The outcomes of such prosecution allowed for hefty fines and 
incarceration if found guilty. 

The intent was simple: Customers could use the network and trust that 
what they said to each other was a private conversation. Neither other 
users of the public network, nor the carrier and its employees and agents 
were allowed to be privy to any conversation that occurred over the 
public carriage service. And, with the exception of the provisions of 
lawful interception, the customer's right to a certain level privacy was 
ensured through these provisions.

But that was then. Apparently today is different.

Here is a case not only of inspecting the user's activities without the 
user's knowledge and certainly without their consent, but then reaching 
inside the network conversation and eavesdropping upon the user's digital 
conversation, extracting parts of the content of this conversation and 
passing it offshore to a third party. This third party then apparently 
uses this information in ways that are way beyond the user's reasonable 
expectation of the limits of the role of a common carrier. 

It seems that such actions are way beyond the terms and conditions of the 
Australian Telecommunications Act, in so far as that parts of a user's 
conversation have been intercepted by the public carrier, recorded, and 
then sent to a third party without consent. All this without any form of 
identified operational necessity in terms of the well being and integrity 
of the network itself. 

It was a case of stalking, and that is not part of the legitimate role of 
a common carrier.

Why would a common carrier who enjoys a privileged position with respect 
to being privy to user's private conversations pay so little heed to its 
common carrier role?

What's so special about the role of a common carrier anyway?
There once was a time when you could not trust the messenger. There once 
was a time when not only did you pay to have your message sent, but you 
paid to receive messages. And there was no guarantee that the message 
would not be read by the messenger. It could be that the contents of your 
note could be used to determine how much the receiver should pay for the 
message. It could be that your message was copied and sold to other 
parties. If you can't trust the messenger then communications becomes a 
risky business.
Throughout history the position of a messenger has been a mixed blessing. 
To be the bearer of bad news was not an enviable role, and rather than 
being rewarded for the effort of delivering the message, the messenger 
may well be in dire straits given the level of wrath of the recipient. 
The option of reading the message before delivering it could be seen as a 
personal survival strategy, as well as being a prudent business move - 
bad news could be discarded immediately, while good news could attract 
the potential of extracting a higher delivery fee from the recipient. Of 
course while this may be good for the messenger, such a mode of operation 
was not be for the benefit of all. 

For the parties attempting to use the messenger service, message delivery 
could be a very haphazard affair. If the message itself was intended to 
be a secret, then one could confidently anticipate that this secrecy was 
going to be compromised by the messenger and that the supposedly private 
message would be passed on to others.
One important way we addressed this was through the organisation of the 
postal system, where the postal service was operated by the public 
administration as a public service, and its operation was undertaken with 
the framework of a common carrier role. The postal carrier was not liable 
for the content it carried, and it treated all messages in the same 

In return, customers of the service could use this medium in the 
confident expectation that in the normal course of events their envelopes 
would not be opened by the postal carrier. That their private 
conversations conducted over this service were just that - private.

These days we no longer see a position of restraint on the part of data 
carriers, and rather than operating in a common carrier role we are 
witnessing a pervasive and possessive attitude of "all your packets 
belong to us."

I think its encouraging to observe that there is still a body of opinion 
that thinks its unethical, and even plain wrong, for a carrier to stalk 
its customers so intensely. Moving customer data across borders to other 
countries may be cost effective in a business sense, but what protections 
accompany the data export? From an Australian perspective does a US 
regulatory framework protect any rights to privacy for individuals who 
are to them simply "aliens"?

The issues relating to the consumer's reasonable expectation of a common 
carriage service to be operated within basic terms of integrity and 
privacy are important underlying issues here. Having a common carriage 
provider spy of your every move via a third party operating in a 
different regulatory and legal regime, is not consistent with any 
reasonable expectation of integrity of the operation of a public carriage 
service. This offshore third party is in a unique position to monetize 
this collected information without further regard to duty of care with 
respect to individuals' privacy. 

This is not exactly a healthy development, as far as I can tell.

In more general terms it's pretty clear that in our digital environment 
content providers and aggregators are being seen as the beneficiaries of 
the promised generation of wealth. And there is no doubt that some of 
these more innovative content-oriented companies, such as Google, enjoy 
the almost euphoric confidence of investors these days. It's equally true 
that the previous dominant forces in this space, yesterday's telephone 
companies, like the newspaper businesses, are seeing the inexorable 
waning of their wealth, power and status as a consequence of this shift 
in the landscape.

For the carriers maybe there was a small beacon of hope. For a brief 
moment it seemed that while we had transformed the wired copper world 
into a revenue wasteland that offered only the promise of a future 
digital slum, the mobile world would be the new golden path. Mobile 
devices offered the combination of utility services and affordable luxury 
goods, and everything about this environment was growing. Demand was 
growing, revenue was growing and margins were extremely attractive. Maybe 
if they concentrated in the mobile sector they could stop this inexorable 
commoditization of their carriage role and transform themselves back from 
being a nondescript utility operator to being a valued and valuable 
service enabler.

But in many markets the mobile good times for the carriage providers are 
now also waning. As we try to expand the size of the market we have to 
reach into market segments that have lower discretionary levels of 
spending power. In addition, the high operating margins attract more 
competitive entrants into the market, and as a consequence both retail 
and wholesale carriage prices are on the way down. And in the same 
fashion as we've seen the operating margins for wired Internet carriage 
services fall over the past decade, we are now seeing this being replayed 
in the mobile world. But mobiles was the Plan B for the legacy telephone 
operators when the wired telephone became a revenue wasteland. And this 
time there is no Plan C for when the mobile market also becomes a 
commodity market, and operating margins shrink to a level that only 
sustains the most efficient of operators who have the most modest of 
margin aspirations for their carriage role.

Perhaps it's now desperation time for these carriers. Perhaps in their 
search for any form of additional revenue they have taken a leaf from 
Google's and Facebooks's operating manuals. In the content world, 
knowledge of the customer is everything.

As Hal Varian, a noted economist in this information space observed some 
time back, spam is merely a failure of information about the consumer. If 
you knew all there was to know about that consumer then you could ensure 
that what you sent to the consumer was not unwanted digital detritus but 
timely and helpful advice!

In their desire to emulate these hypergiants of the content world I 
suspect that the carriers have been over-enthusiastic in their quest to 
know absolutely everything about their customers and what they do. In the 
carriage world there are few digital exhaust vents where a carrier can 
quietly pick over the exhaust data and pull out individual customer 
behaviours. But there is live traffic. Real time behaviours of real 
individuals working, playing and living on these carriage services. And 
the temptation to tap into this rich vein of data and monetize it is 
probably overwhelming at times. So overwhelming that in Telstra's case 
they appeared to simply forget about the duty of care that they have to 
members of the public as an intrinsic part of their responsibilities as a 
common public carrier.

It is often said that the road to hell is paved with the best of 
intentions – that the ultimate outcome of the solution is potentially far 
worse than the immediate problem being addressed.

It's possible to believe that this was indeed an innocent well-
intentioned case of a carrier trying to offer a premium service to its 
users to meet a perceived market need, and at the same time differentiate 
itself from its competitors. After all, its often easy to confuse malice 
and incompetence, and ascribe to malice or evil intent a set of actions 
that are just as easily the outcome of simple incompetence. And 
incompetence is very common!

But sometimes that road to hell is one that is paved and directed by 
darker motives.

At times its not all about the purity of intention. Sometimes this is 
indeed about exploiting or even abusing a privileged position of trust 
for base motives of revenue opportunities. By taking a carriage role and 
transforming it into a cynical data gathering exercise its hard to say 
that the noblest of intentions was evident. There is no doubt that 
tapping into the digital stream reveals an extremely rich stream of 
information about individuals and, to put it crassly, their purchasing 
needs and desires.

Of course one should be wary of dichotomies, and particularly wary of 
false dichotomies! Maybe its a more confused story.

We have been generating mixed signals about the common carrier role for 
many years.

On the one hand the content folk have been extremely successful in 
resisting the pressure to cross-subsidise carriage providers. The various 
cries for "sender pays," "QoS settlements" and even "network neutrality" 
are all outcomes of this particular fight, and once more the policy and 
political level has been dragged into the fight. This time the pressure 
from the content giants and end user lobby groups has been to restrict 
the carrier as a neutral, impartial and disinterested party with respect 
to the content being carried over the network. Carriers should indeed act 
in every respect within the convention of a common carrier.

But there have been other conversations and strident demands as well. 
When spam emerged as a significant problem the immediate reaction from 
many folk was to place the carriage provider into the role of anti-spam 
enforcer. The major complaint heard from the carrier's helpdesk and from 
the carrier's public affairs group was that the access provider, in 
effect the local carrier, was the responsible party here. The access 
provider should have, and enforce, "appropriate use" policies and take 
out these offending spammers. What was going on here was that the carrier 
was being cast in a role where it was perceived as being responsible for 
the actions of, and content generated by, their customers. And those 
access providers who took a principled position that this was none of 
their business were often shunned by their Internet Service Provider 
peers, and castigated by the anti-spam lobby as being "spam friendly."

It did not stop there.

It rarely does!

When the Intellectual Property Rights folk entered the fray and 
complained about users trading in stolen content naturally the access 
carrier was seen as being the focal point for enforcement. Law 
Enforcement Agencies also took the expedient view that the fastest way to 
the end user and their activities was though their local access carrier. 
The IPR lobby group has been very successful in making this case of 
carrier responsibility at the policy and political level in many national 
regimes, and the LEAs saw this in a largely positive light. The result is 
that the carrier is being cast into a role of being an active entity in 
terms of both users' activities and the content being carried over the 
network. As a consequence the carrier is left with the impression that 
nobody cares about common carrier roles and it's now a free for all about 
mining the rich vein of the data trail generated by individual users.

Little wonder that carriers are confused about their role with respect to 
the common carrier provisions. Everyone else is being very busy sending 
mixed signals!

The ultimate outcome of continual erosion of the common carrier role is 
that public users of a public communications service can confidently 
expect all their communications to be monitored, stored and cross 
referenced, and later acted on by third parties in ways that are 
uncontrollable, unrequested and potentially unwelcome and personally 
damaging. Its not just that everything you post on Facebook will be with 
you for the entirety of your life and for a long time thereafter. Its 
more than that. It's everything you do, every mail you post, every 
purchase you make, every site you visit, everything. It's digital 
stalking at its most intrusive, and at its most threatening.

Maybe its time once again to phrase a coherent and consistent view of our 
expectations about public communications carriers and their obligations 
in relation to their public community of users and usage.

Perhaps it's time to resolve some of these confusing signals we've been 
generating. Perhaps liberalisation of the regulatory regime is not the 
same as discarding the common carrier role and its attendant obligations. 
Common carriers should have a clearly bounded set of responsibilities 
with respect to both content and their liability with respect to actions 
of clients of the service. Perhaps its time to consider how best to 
enforce social norms on the Internet without compromising a common 
respect for the basic integrity of the carrier as a neutral party to the 
content being carried across the network. Perhaps its time to recognise 
that in this domain the Internet is not novel, and what we have learned 
from a rich history of carriage provision in society has direct relevance 
to the Internet today.

The Internet is simply too valuable an environment to have its long term 
potential as a stable universal communications platform mindlessly 
sacrificed on the altar of short term business expediency and confused 
political signals.


Afterword: Australian Telecommunications Interception and Access Laws
Interception of telecommunications in the Commonwealth of Australia is 
governed by the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act 1979, as 
amended in June 2006.

To quote the Explanatory Memorandum of the 2006 Act: 

In relation to both telecommunications interception and access to stored 
communications, the Act makes clear that the general position is that 
these activities are prohibited, except in certain clearly defined 
situations. This reflects the primary focus of the Act which is to 
protect the privacy of communications.

The terms communication and telecommunications system are defined in the 
Act as follows:

communication includes conversation and a message, and any part of a 
conversation or message, whether:
     (a)   in the form of: 
      (i) speech, music or other sounds; 
      (ii) data; 
      (iii) text; 
      (iv)   visual images, whether or not animated; or 
      (v) signals; or 
   (b) in any other form or in any combination of forms. 

telecommunications system means:
     (a)   a telecommunications network that is within Australia; or 
   (b) a telecommunications network that is partly within Australia, but 
only to the extent that the network is within Australia; and includes 
equipment, a line or other facility that is connected to such a network 
and is within Australia. 

Section 7 of this Act states:

(1)   A person shall not: 
   (a)   intercept; 
   (b) authorize, suffer or permit another person to intercept; or 
   (c) do any act or thing that will enable him or her or another person 
to intercept; 
  a communication passing over a telecommunications system. 

A person who contravenes this section is guilty of an offence punishable 
on conviction by imprisonment for a period not exceeding 2 years. Limited 
exceptions to this interception prohibition are specified in other 
subsections of Section 7 of this Act. These include interception under an 
interception warrant, where such warrants may be issued for the purposes 
of national security and law enforcement. These exceptions also include 
provision for carriers and employees of carriers undertaking their duties:

Exceptions applicable to carriers and carrier employees in relation to 
duties involving the installation of lines and equipment or the operation 
or maintenance of a telecommunications system.

This is further defined in the Act as:

An act or thing done by an employee of a carrier in the course of his or 
her duties for or in connection with:
     (i)   the installation of any line, or the installation of any 
equipment, used or intended for use in connection with a 
telecommunications service; or 
   (ii) the operation or maintenance of a telecommunications system; or 
   (iii) the identifying or tracing of any person who has contravened, or 
is suspected of having contravened or being likely to contravene, a 
provision of Part 10.6 of the Criminal Code; 
if it is reasonably necessary for the employee to do that act or thing in 
order to perform those duties effectively.

This material on the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act has 
been assembled from the Electronic Frontiers Australia resource on 
interception and access at: https://www.efa.org.au/Issues/Privacy/tia.html

Was it "reasonably necessary" for Telstra to direct its employees to 
intercept customers' communications and pass these details to a third 
party? Was this a reasonable part of the functions of the operation or 
maintenance of the mobile telecommunications system?

If this is a question about what is "reasonable" under these 
circumstances, then I'm of the personal opinion that this was certainly 
not a reasonable action in terms of the operation and maintenance of 
their telecommunications system. I am therefore of the opinion that this 
action by Telstra and its employees in undertaking interception of 
customers' traffic and passing details of the content of that intercepted 
traffic to a third party appears to constitute a breach of Section 7 of 
the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act.

Is any local regulatory agency showing an interest in pursuing this and 
initiating a prosecution action? Nothing to report so far.

Disclaimer: The above views do not necessarily represent the views of the 
Asia Pacific Network Information Centre.

About the Author
GEOFF HUSTON B.Sc., M.Sc., is the Chief Scientist at APNIC, the Regional 
Internet Registry serving the Asia Pacific region. He has been closely 
involved with the development of the Internet for many years, 
particularly within Australia, where he was responsible for the initial 
build of the Internet within the Australian academic and research sector. 
He is author of a number of Internet-related books, and was a member of 
the Internet Architecture Board from 1999 until 2005, and served on the 
Board of Trustees of the Internet Society from 1992 until 2001. 




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