Is There a Bright Side to Internet Censorship? WildPackets’ MacLeod Tells All [Q&A Series]

WiFi’s often hailed as the savior of crappy mobile networks, their hotspots keeping us from bleeding out our data “minutes” and luring in the lost and weary souls of mobile workers seeking refuge in cafes, hotel lobbies and airport hubs.  As a network analyzer, WildPackets sees the good, bad and evil of WiFi trends on a global scale, leveraging big data techniques to determine the needs of networking’s future.

In today’s Snapshot Series we hear from Jim MacLeod, Product Manager at WildPackets. He discusses the “bright side” to Internet censorship and other challenges networking faces when it comes to privacy, WiFi’s impact on networking at the global level, and three trends he’s watching (including residential broadband).

Is there a bright side to Internet censorship?

Internet censorship is a visible modern example of the intricacies involving free speech.  If there’s a silver lining, it’s only because it’s a cloudy issue. When a government limits the access of its citizens to the Internet, that’s a clear example of censorship.  Change the same “censoring” technology to a different context, such as a business, and the implications are very different.  “Citizens” are replaced with “employees”, and “censorship” becomes a matter of assuring work-appropriate content and interaction. The business culture dictates the boundaries of acceptable behaviour, but it’s distressingly easy to extend the ideals of business culture into a societal culture, and this is where we remember that internet filtering is sinister when enforced on a societal level.  Employees generally have a private life outside of work, but residents of a country don’t have that same relaxation when they go home at night.  Employees who violate policies can lose their employment, but when the state enforces rules on citizens, citizens lose their human rights.

If there is a “bright side”, it’s the global reaction to oppression by creating tools to bypass restrictions.  Projects like TOR (The Onion Router) are strong voices for intellectual freedom.  However, they also have their own cloud of moral issues: tools created to allow anonymous activity on the Internet will attract anyone who wants to avoid surveillance. There is no single technological fix for the privacy arms race, so society has to rely on the oldest tool for stability, and trust each other to be generally good people.

See the entire CEO Series with Kristen Nicole on Pinterest and Springpad!


How are WiFi trends impacting networks on a global scale?

WiFi means that I can generally have a significant amount of bandwidth anywhere, anytime.  When accessing the Internet from home, my IP address is a rough identifier of who I am.  When accessing the Internet from a coffee shop, the IP address is something that I’m borrowing, and doesn’t necessarily point directly to me.  In a society that values freedom of speech, I anonymously click a checkbox agreeing to play by the rules, and I (usually) have unrestricted access.  In a society that values “harmony” or “morality”, local laws require me to identify myself personally before letting me online.

Regardless of whether I must identify myself for the WiFi access point, there are cases in the US where even people using public WiFi for computer crimes have been tracked down.  IP addresses of public WiFi locations can be correlated with information such as Facebook logins, not to mention old-school investigative data mining such as credit card purchases.  The media loves to know that a disgruntled IT worker logged in from “Bikini’s Sports Bar and Grill”.

What are 3 challenges networks face regarding consumer privacy?

The number one challenge to consumer privacy is the fight against movie and music piracy.  It’s not that consumers should have a right to steal intellectual property – that’s theft – but neither do these companies have a right to the aggressive and intrusive tactics they’ve been pushing.  The entertainment industry has been pushing for ISPs to spy on consumers through a combination of legislation and business deals. Challenge number 2 is us.  We as consumers create increasing amounts of data, mostly willingly, and we’re not always careful to cover our tracks.  I call it the Facebook effect.

The final challenge is that faster computers and maturing Big Data techniques make it easier than ever before for marketers to pull meaning out of the data we as consumers willingly create.  The department store chain Target recently figured out how to determine which of their customers were pregnant, just based on recent purchasing history.  When consumers complained of privacy violations after receiving coupons for pregnancy and baby supplies, Target responded not by discontinuing the data mining, but by mixing in random ads to make it less obvious that they’d figured it out.  There is enough compute power available to violate privacy for everyone, all the time.

You use data analysis to determine a network’s health and future capacity. What gives you confidence in the future?

Technology is agnostic to its use, which means that even when it’s being used in an intrusive or oppressive fashion, there’s usually something to counteract it.  Couple that with the vigilance of watchdog groups like the EFF and EPIC, and I know that there will be a method to push back against abuses of freedoms, whether it’s corporations or nations trying to take them away, or activists or just bored individuals that are over-using their freedom at the expense of others’.

Society stays cohesive, because the fundamental truth that comes from every new technology is that people like to interact with other people.  Sometimes we even see unexpected but amazing outcomes of that people to people interaction, like the use of Twitter to organize political protests during the Arab Spring.  Overall, the power of technology comes from the way it connects people and extends the human condition.