Where the buffalo roam
AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson "told a conference at the World Economic Forum that the company is looking at monitoring peer-to-peer file-sharing networks, one of the largest drivers of online traffic but also a common way to illegally exchange copyright files" just a few days after Direction of National Intelligence Mike McConnell suggested the US government needed unfettered access to information flowing over the Internet to protect national security. A coincidence?
Great minds -- but also lesser minds -- tend to think alike. The other way in which information can flow without using Internet protocols, though it may use the same telecommunications infrastructure, is through peer to peer networking. Peer to peer networking is the premier way to create a darknet, "a private virtual network where users connect only to people they trust."
Although file sharing has been the principle historical use for darknets, -- to share movies, music and similar types of content -- the same system can be used to move around information. The backchannel that is used to move around the latest hit can in principle be used to move around instructions for making bombs.
Peer to peer networks were perceived, for a variety of reasons, as being a means to bypass the virtual checkpoints that might be set up on the Internet. Because information was exchanged between individual computers, peer to peer networking theoretically offered protection from the threat of suit by copyright owners because there was no central point, such as a "download server" to sue. But in practice, implementations like Napster created central and vulnerable points in order to provide an easy way for users to find content. Such directories then became vulnerable to legal action.
One of the systems which has consciously traded off ease of use for greater invisibility was Gnutella. In that networking system, each computer knew the way to at least one other peer to peer node. In other words, it knew at least one "friend". Whenever it wanted to find something, it would send a request to its "friends". If the "friend" had the resource it would send it back, but if it didn't, it would in turn pass along the request to whatever other "friends" it had.
In practice, this method of searching on the Gnutella network was often unreliable. Each node is a regular computer user; as such, they are constantly connecting and disconnecting, so the network is never completely stable. Also, the bandwidth cost of searching on Gnutella would grow exponentially to the number of connected users, often saturating connections rendering slower nodes useless. Therefore, search requests would often be dropped, and most queries reached only a very small percentage of the network.
In other words, there was no way of knowing what the resources were available without passing along a chain of messages. If some of the peers were offline the trail ended there. And as the quote above shows, if the answer to a question could not be found fairly quickly, the request would be dropped. Peer to peer networks offered greater invisibility but at the price of inconvenience. The economics of security dictate that ceteris paribus the greater the degree of protection, the higher the cost, either in terms of money, time or inconvenience. Eventually, even Gnutella began to consider implementing some form of central directory to remove bottlenecks, using "ultrapeers", creating a point of vulnerability once again.
But organizations like al-Qaeda, which are not interested in surfing for music or the latest video, can use peer to peer networks to great advantage. Their key networks don't need to be scalable. The number of their nodes is purposely kept small. In order to broadcast messages to the wider world, terrorist networks only need a node on their darknet which can connect to the wider Internet along which messages can be discovered and passed much more quickly. Therefore, any organization which is willing to accept the inconvenience required by networking schemes like Gnutella can obtain a huge degree of protection from garden variety Internet sleuths. As Wikipedia notes:
One of the benefits of having Gnutella so decentralized is to make it very difficult to shut the network down and to make it a network in which the users are the only ones who can decide which content will be available. Unlike Napster, where the entire network relied on the central server, Gnutella cannot be shut down by shutting down any one node and it is impossible for any one company to control the contents of the network, which is also due to the many free software Gnutella clients which share the network.
Which brings us back to Mike McConnell and AT&T. Although McConnell's threat to access Google's search histories may sound like a great way to track down threats it has definite limitations. One of those limitations is that it won't catch those who use darknets based on certain kinds of peer to peer networking. This is where AT&T potentially comes in. Although peer to peer networks can outflank Internet protocols and live outside its system, they cannot easily bypass the physical communications system. Darknet messages must still travel the wires, microwave links, satellite broadcasts, etc unless they are to revert to physical transport by courier. What may be invisible to Google might still be detectable by the phone company. So when Randall Stephenson says his company is "looking at monitoring peer-to-peer file-sharing networks" it's not just the music pirates that have to look out.
Even shutting down piracy has strategic implications. Countries like China have built themselves on the foundation of bootlegged intellectual property. But the Wild West frontier days of the information universe are ending. The marshals are riding the range.
Information will become one of the important commodities of the 21st century. Consequently intellectual property, information control, meta-information (information about information) will comprise the new strategic geography of the coming decades. It will be around these points that nations and organizations will clash, as in centuries past men fought for Little Round Top, Midway or airspace over London. The information revolution began by offering its rebels the vista of unlimited freedom. Ironically it may end by providing unlimited surveillance.