12-12-2011 mag 6 /

article/

A healthy dose of paranoia is advisable - From ISP over IX to surveillance

Abstract: 

The Internet starts with a blonde woman wearing a paper hat saying “home computer”. She is the starting point of a human sized model of the internet, part of a workshop by the Chokepoint Project at this years Impakt Media Festival.

The Internet starts with a blonde woman wearing a paper hat saying “home computer”. She is the starting point of a human sized model of the internet, part of a workshop by the Chokepoint Project at this years Impakt Media Festival.

Someone entering the workshop room at Theater Kikker in Utrecht at this point gets to look at a formation of people with brown paper bags over their heads connected to one and another via a red string around their belly- a human visualization of the Internet.

What from a distance conveys the impression of a teambuilding exercise rather than the reconstruction of a technical network, becomes clearer upon approach. Each improvised paper hat has a term written on it, from router to ISP over IX, to name just a few.

The human chain visualizes over how many hubs a simple email has to travel until it reaches the inbox of the receiver. The blonde woman alias “the home computer” is connected to a young man “the router”, who is in turn connected to an ISP (Internet service provider) as well as Internet Exchanges (IX) in Europe and the US. The red wire, running from one belly to the other, constructs a net in the room, visualizing the links and cables the email has to travel through. The simulation in the workshop portrays nine intermediate stations. Looking at the number of connections and the mesh in the room, the possible danger of the long transmission chain becomes obvious to the participants: surveillance. Each part of the chain could, without the awareness of the user, read and save the data it is passing on.

Although networks in Europe are relatively safe from such scrutiny, a gaze outside the workshop room on autocratic regimes shows how crucial knowledge about the functioning of the Internet can be. To put it more bluntly: it can save lives. For instance in countries like Syria, where web browsing is monitored and censored by the government at all times and torture of dissidents is prevalent.

Translated back into the human model of the workshop, a depiction of the Syrian network would imply adding one extra station to the mesh, the security agency of the regime.

To prevent capture and subsequent torture when spreading regime-critical material, Syrian citizens have to take precautions when going online. The Chokepoint project provides practical advice and tools to this end, since besides tying people together in workshops the team also works on less abstract things, like the editing of a blogroll.
Under the title “Protect Yourself”, they counsel (Syrian) citizens on how to stay undercover when surfing the web or sending out emails. An important piece of advice is the use of encrypted connections.

In the model of the workshop the scenario of encrypted communication would be visualized by every transmitting part of the human mesh being blindfolded and deaf. Thereby an email is passed on between the stations, but only the recipient is able to encrypt the message. The encrypted connection ensures protection from eavesdroppers and man-in-the-middle-attacks.

After detaching the workshop members from the strong ties of the artificial Internet, the members of the Chokepoint Project introduce their major (and name-giving) project and explain its development.

Following the shutdown of the Internet by the Egyptian government earlier this year, Chris Pinchen and James Burke of the P2P Foundation started to research how it was possible to switch off a decentralized network like the Internet. They found out that the problem lies within the physical infrastructure of the network. In countries like Egypt and Libya the Internet merges at one point, a so-called Chokepoint. This infrastructure makes it easy for the government to switch off the whole network.

Inspired by the wave of popular outrage and their findings, Burke and Pinchen initiated the Chokepoint Project.

Similar to the human sized model in the workshop, the members of the Chokepoint Project are also working on a visualization, only on a larger scale; they are mapping the Chokepoints of the Internet.

Like the depiction of the email-route and the aha-effect concerning surveillance, the mapping of Chokepoints will shed light on the weaknesses and instabilities of the network infrastructures in Eastern European countries. Furthermore it will enable organizations to monitor the Internet nearly in real time, to quickly identify when incidents of turning off the Internet in a country occur.

However, the fact that surveillance is not a problem inherent only to countries with autocratic regimes is something the human sized model of the workshop also demonstrates.

Following the red string from one intermediate station to the next shows that the “NY Internet Exchange” is directly connected to the “NSA”, the National Security Agency. This connection demonstrates that even online communication in Western countries is monitored and emphasizes the major point the Chokepoint Project wants to make: a healthy dose of paranoia is advisable.