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The Effects of the Forthcoming FCC Privacy Rules on Internet Security

Nick Feamster

Last week, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced new privacy rules that govern how Internet service providers can share information about consumers with third parties. One focus of this rulemaking has been on the use and sharing of so-called "Consumer Proprietary Network Information (CPNI)" — information about subscribers — for advertising. The Center for Information Technology Policy and the Center for Democracy and Technology jointly hosted a panel exploring this topic last May [recording available on YouTube], and I have previously written on certain aspects of this issue, including what ISPs might be able to infer about user behavior, even if network traffic were encrypted.

Unintended Negative Consequences

Although the forthcoming rulemaking targets the collection, use, and sharing of customer data with "third parties", an important — and oft-forgotten — facet of this discussion is that (1) ISPs rely on the collection, use, and sharing of CPNI to operate and secure their networks and (2) network researchers (myself included) rely on this data to conduct our research. As one example of our work that is discussed in the Wall Street Journal, we used DNS domain registration data to identify cyber criminals before they launch attacks. Performing this research required access to all .com domain registrations. We have also developed algorithms that detect the misuse of DNS domain names by analyzing the DNS lookups themselves. We have also worked with ISPs to explore the relationship between Internet speeds and usage, which required access to byte-level usage data from individual customers. ISPs also rely on third parties, including Verisign and Arbor Networks, to detect and mitigate attacks; network equipment vendors also use traffic traces from ISPs to test new products and protocols. In summary, although the goal of the FCC's rulemaking is to protect the use of consumer data, the rulemaking could have had unintended negative consequences for the stability and security of the Internet, as well as for Internet innovation.

In response to the potential negative effects this rule could have created for Internet security and networking researchers, I filed comment with the FCC highlighting how network operators and researchers depend on data to keep the network operating well, to keep it secure, and to foster continued innovation. My comment in May highlights the type of data that Internet service providers (ISPs) collect, how they use it for operational and research purposes, and potential privacy concerns with each of these datasets. In my comment, I exhaustively enumerate the types of data that ISPs collect; the following data types are particularly interesting because ISPs and researchers rely on them heavily, yet they also introduce certain privacy concerns:

  • IPFIX ("NetFlow") data, which is the Internet traffic equivalent of call data records. IPFIX data is collected at a router and contains statistics about each traffic flow that traverses the router. It contains information about the "metadata" of each flow (e.g., the source and destination IP address, the start and end time of the flow). This data doesn't contain "payload" information, but as previous research on information like telephone metadata has shown, a lot can be learned about a user from this kind of information. Nonetheless, this data has been used in research and security for many purposes, including (among other things) detecting botnets and denial of service attacks.
  • DNS Query data, which contains information about the domain names that each IP address (i.e., customer) is looking up (i.e., from a Web browser, from an IoT device, etc.). DNS query data can be highly revealing, as we have shown in previous work. Yet, at the same time, DNS query data is also incredibly valuable for detecting Internet abuse, including botnets and malware.

Exceptions to the Rule

Over the summer, I gave a follow-up presentation and filed follow-up comments (several of which were jointly authored by members of the networking and security research community) to help draw attention to how much Internet research depends on access to this type of data. In early August, a group of us filed a comment with proposed wording for the upcoming rule. In this comment, we delineated the types of work that should be exempt from the upcoming rules. We argue that research should be exempt from the rulemaking if the research: (1) aims to promote security, stability, and reliability of networks, (2) does not have the end-goal of violating user privacy; (3) has benefits that outweigh the privacy risks; (4) takes steps to mitigate privacy risks; (5) would be enhanced by access to the ISP data. In delineating this type of research, our goal was to explicitly "carve out" researchers at universities and research labs without opening a loophole for third-party advertisers.

Of course, the exception notwithstanding, researchers also should be mindful of user privacy when conducting research. Just because a researcher is "allowed" to receive a particular data trace from an ISP does not mean that such data should be shared. For example, much network and security research is possible with de-identified network traffic data (e.g., data with anonymized IP addresses), or without packet "payloads" (i.e., the kind of traffic data collected with Deep Packet Inspection). Researchers and ISPs should always take care to apply data minimization techniques that limit the disclosure of private information to only the granularity that is necessary to perform the research. Various practices for minimization exist, such as hashing or removing IP addresses, aggregating statistics over longer time windows, and so forth. The network and security research communities should continue developing norms and standard practices for deciding when, how, and to what degree private data from ISPs can be minimized when it is shared.

The FCC, ISPs, customers and researchers should all care about the security, operation, and performance of the Internet. Achieving these goals often involves sharing customer data with third-parties, such as the network and security research community. As a member of the research community, I am looking forward to reading the text of the rule, which, if our comments are incorporated, will help preserve both customer privacy and the research that keeps the Internet secure and performing well.

By Nick Feamster, Professor at Princeton University

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