A United Nations agency is quietly drafting technical standards, proposed by the Chinese government, to define methods of tracing the original source of Internet communications and potentially curbing the ability of users to remain anonymous.
The U.S. National Security Agency is also participating in the "IP Traceback" drafting group, named Q6/17, which is meeting next week in Geneva to work on the traceback proposal. Members of Q6/17 have declined to release key documents, and meetings are closed to the public.
The potential for eroding Internet users' right to remain anonymous, which is protected by law in the United States and recognized in international law by groups such as the Council of Europe, has alarmed some technologists and privacy advocates. Also affected may be services such as the Tor anonymizing network.
"What's distressing is that it doesn't appear that there's been any real consideration of how this type of capability could be misused," said Marc Rotenberg, director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, D.C. "That's really a human rights concern."
Nearly everyone agrees that there are, at least in some circumstances, legitimate security reasons to uncover the source of Internet communications. The most common justification for tracebacks is to counter distributed denial of service, or DDoS, attacks.
But implementation details are important, and governments participating in the process -- organized by the International Telecommunication Union, a U.N. agency -- may have their own agendas. A document submitted by China this spring and obtained by CNET News said the "IP traceback mechanism is required to be adapted to various network environments, such as different addressing (IPv4 and IPv6), different access methods (wire and wireless) and different access technologies (ADSL, cable, Ethernet) and etc." It adds: "To ensure traceability, essential information of the originator should be logged."
The Chinese author of the document, Huirong Tian, did not respond to repeated interview requests. Neither did Jiayong Chen of China's state-owned ZTE Corporation, the vice chairman of the Q6/17's parent group who suggested in an April 2007 meeting that it address IP traceback.
A second, apparently leaked ITU document offers surveillance and monitoring justifications that seem well-suited to repressive regimes:
A political opponent to a government publishes articles putting the government in an unfavorable light. The government, having a law against any opposition, tries to identify the source of the negative articles but the articles having been published via a proxy server, is unable to do so protecting the anonymity of the author.
That document was provided to Steve Bellovin, a well-known Columbia University computer scientist, Internet Engineering Steering Group member, and Internet Engineering Task Force participant who wrote a traceback proposal eight years ago. Bellovin says he received the ITU document as part of a ZIP file from someone he knows and trusts, and subsequently confirmed its authenticity through a second source. (An ITU representative disputed its authenticity but refused to make public the Q6/17 documents, including a ZIP file describing traceback requirements posted on the agency's password-protected Web site.)
Bellovin said in a blog post this week that "institutionalizing a means for governments to quash their opposition is in direct contravention" of the U.N.'s own Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He said that traceback is no longer that useful a concept, on the grounds that few attacks use spoofed addresses, there are too many sources in a DDoS attack to be useful, and the source computer inevitably would prove to be hacked into anyway.
Another technologist, Jacob Appelbaum, one of the developers of the Tor anonymity system, also was alarmed. "The technical nature of this 'feature' is such a beast that it cannot and will not see the light of day on the Internet," Appelbaum said. "If such a system was deployed, it would be heavily abused by precisely those people that it would supposedly trace. No blackhat would ever be caught by this."
Adding to speculation about where the U.N. agency is heading are indications that some members would like to curb Internet anonymity more broadly: