A new anti-democratic tool: The Deep Packet Inspection technique

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As economies in Africa deregulated and liberalised their telecommunications sectors in the late 1990s, they experienced increased information and communication technology (ICT) development. In the last decade, many large private technology companies, including Google parent company Alphabet and engineering corporation SpaceX, have been trying to pioneer the provision of low-cost aerial and satellite internet services to unconnected areas across Africa.

These efforts are inspiring, but they are at times accompanied by concerns about censorship of Internet content by repressive governments. For example, in November 2020 the Ethiopian blocked access to the Internet in the Tigray region soon after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered a military offensive on the breakaway region. Sudanese authorities’ decision to block the Internet for a combined 185 days in 2019 cost the country an estimated USD 1.9 billion, roughly 7.3% of its 2020 GDP.  

What is driving this behaviour? African governments worried about maintaining political control at times seek to exert a degree of control over users and the dissemination of information. Their wishes are granted due to their power over existing telecommunication services. As a result, partial or complete shutdowns of the Internet and social networks in African countries now occur regularly.

In 2021 in Africa, 12 countries including Burkina Faso, Chad, Congo, Eswatini, Ethiopia, Gabon, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, South Sudan, Uganda, and Zambia cut internet access at least 19 times. This was a significant increase over the previous year. There is also evidence that control over the Internet is becoming an increasingly contested issue, with important legal actions in Nigeria, Sudan, and Zambia that challenged authorities who sought to block, throttle, or shutdown the Internet. 

In all these cases, government efforts to maintain their authority were a threat to established principles of freedom of expression.

A new tool: Deep Packet Inspection 

The use of Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) surveillance technologies has been the focus of a growing amount of scholarly work due to its impact on sensitive policy issues (such as economic and political policies). DPI surveillance technologies are communications surveillance tools that enable those deploying them to monitor Internet traffic, including content data.

There are several important legitimate benefits of DPI for an organisation including the ability to catch threats and attacks that may be hidden in the contents of data packets, and to prevent data leaks and identify where data is being sent. However, there are concerns about the transparency of these technologies because DPI has access to detailed data, such as where and who information is traveling to and from.

Consequently, some privacy advocates are not in favour of DPI, for good reason. In Africa, physical attacks and arrests of activists and journalists who have posted critical commentaries online or have had their communications monitored, are well documented.

An emerging paradox

These developments have contributed to a political and infrastructure paradox that is emerging globally, and is particularly acute in Africa. Private firms and governments are investing in the expansion and improvement of infrastructure networks and publicly stating that Internet access is important for national economic development. However, authoritarian governments are busy discouraging, restricting, or threatening those who use this infrastructure in ways that challenge national political power or undermine vague national morals or norms

Debates over the future of the Internet and its control persist globally, but these debates are accentuated in many African countries as the promise of greater internet access is now routinely undermined by governments. As with other technologies, DPI can also be used for eavesdropping and censorship. For example, the French company Amesys allegedly sold surveillance technologies to Libya which were used for monitoring political opponents of the government.

The Chinese government has been known to use deep packet inspection to monitor the country’s network traffic and censor content and sites deemed to be harmful to their interests. This is how China has been able to block pornography, religious information, materials related to political dissent, and even popular websites such as Wikipedia, Google, and Facebook.

Although direct censorship of Internet content in Africa has not reached these levels, there is a worrying trend in this direction.  For example, similar to China, Iran and Kazakhstan, the Ethiopian Telecommunication Corporation – which is the sole telecommunication service provider – has deployed or begun testing DPI on all Internet traffic. If this technique spreads across other authoritarian African states – as has been the case with other strategies of repression such as anti-NGO legislation – the impact on the political rights and civil liberties of African citizens will be profound.

Dr Gideon Ogunniye (@gideonbms) is a Senior Research Fellow at PETRAS National Centre of Excellence for IoT Systems Cybersecurity, Department of Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy (STEaPP), University College London, specialising in AI ethics, privacy, and cybersecurity.

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