March 01, 2016
Across the Field

What ISPs Can See

Clarifying the technical landscape of the broadband privacy debate

Aaron Rieke, David Robinson, and Harlan Yu

Report

Introduction

In 2015, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) reclassified broadband Internet service providers (ISPs) as common carriers under Title II of the Communications Act. This shift triggered a statutory mandate for the FCC to protect the privacy of broadband Internet subscribers’ information. The FCC is now considering how to craft new rules to clarify the privacy obligations of broadband providers.

Last week, the Institute for Information Security & Privacy at Georgia Tech released a working paper whose senior author is Professor Peter Swire, entitled “Online Privacy and ISPs.”Throughout this report, we refer to the February 29, 2016 version of the Swire paper, which may change in the future.  The paper describes itself as a “factual and descriptive foundation” for the FCC as the Commission considers how to approach broadband privacy. The paper suggests that certain technical factors limit ISPs’ visibility into their subscribers’ online activities. It also highlights the data collection practices of other (non-ISP) players in the Internet ecosystem.

We believe that the Swire paper, although technically accurate in most of its particulars, could leave readers with some mistaken impressions about what broadband ISPs can see. We offer this report as a complement to the Swire paper, and an alternative, technically expert assessment of the present and potential future monitoring capabilities available to ISPs.

We observe that:

1. Truly pervasive encryption on the Internet is still a long way off. The fraction of total Internet traffic that’s encrypted is a poor proxy for the privacy interests of a typical user. Many sites still don’t encrypt: for example, in each of three key categories that we examined (health, news, and shopping), more than 85% of the top 50 sites still fail to encrypt browsing by default. This long tail of unencrypted web traffic allows ISPs to see when their users research medical conditions, seek advice about debt, or shop for any of a wide gamut of consumer products.

2. Even with HTTPS, ISPs can still see the domains that their subscribers visit. This type of metadata can be very revealing, especially over time. And ISPs are already known to look at this data — for example, some ISPs analyze DNS query information for justified network management purposes, including identifying which of their users are accessing domain names indicative of malware infection.

3. Encrypted Internet traffic itself can be surprisingly revealing. In recent years, computer science researchers have demonstrated that network operators can learn a surprising amount about the contents of encrypted traffic without breaking or weakening encryption. By examining the features of network traffic — like the size, timing and destination of the encrypted packets — it is possible to uniquely identify certain web page visits or otherwise obtain information about what the traffic contains.

4. VPNs are poorly adopted, and can provide incomplete protection. VPNs have been commercially available for years, but they are used sparsely in the United States, for a range of reasons we describe below.

We agree that public policy needs to be built on an accurate technical foundation, and we believe that thoughtful policies, especially those related to Internet technologies, should be reasonably robust to foreseeable technical developments.

We intend for this report to assist policymakers, advocates, and the general public as they consider the technical capabilities of broadband ISPs, and the broader technical context within which this policy debate is happening. This paper does not, however, take a position on any question of public policy.

Read our full report here.

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Federal Communications Commission, Protecting and Promoting the Open Internet, No. 14-28, 30 FCC Rcd. 5601, 2015 WL 1120110 (FCC Feb. 26, 2015) (reclassifying broadband Internet service providers as common carriers under Title II of the Communications Act).

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See generally 47 U.S.C. § 222 (concerning the privacy of customer information in the context of telecommunications services). See also H.R. Rep. No. 104- 458, at 204 (1996) (Conf. Rep.).

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See generally Federal Communications Commission, “Public Workshop on Broadband Consumer Privacy” (Apr. 2015), https://www.fcc.gov/news-events/events/2015/04/public-workshop-on-broadband-consumer-privacy.

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Peter Swire et al., “Online Privacy and ISPs: ISP Access to Consumer Data is Limited and Often Less than Access by Others” (Feb. 29, 2016), http://www.iisp.gatech.edu/sites/default/files/static/reports/2016/what-isps-can-see/images/online_privacy_and_isps.pdf (hereinafter “Swire paper”). Throughout this report, we refer to the February 29, 2016 version of the Swire paper, which may change in the future.

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Swire paper, at 6.

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See generally Swire paper, at 6-14.