Internet graphic

Tool helps internet users prevent their data passing through snooping countries

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Princeton University engineers have identified the main routes that data passes through, and trialled a tool which helps users set their own paths for their internet traffic.

The internet is a global network of computers, sometimes joined together by undersea cable, by telephone network or by satellite. Data can travel through countless paths in order to reach your computer most efficiently. According to Princeton University researchers, this traffic tends to pass through a few dominant countries, particularly the US.

Following Edward Snowden’s 2013 revelations of extensive telecommunications surveillance by the US government, some government officials have argued for the building of new internet infrastructure to reduce dependence on US infrastructure. Notably, a $185m (£142m) undersea cable, EllaLink, is being constructed between Brazil and Portugal: the first high-capacity undersea cable connecting South America and Europe. According to former President of Brazil Dilma Rousseff, the cable would “guarantee the neutrality” of the internet by shielding national internet traffic from US surveillance agencies following reports that the US National Security Agency had spied on Brazil’s communications, which mostly pass through the US.

The Princeton researchers looked into internet routing paths through the US, Brazil, Kenya, India and the Netherlands by accessing the most popular websites using virtual private networks to mimic accessing the websites from these countries. They then measured the paths between the client vantage points and web servers delivering the content within those countries.

The study suggests that the transit of much of Brazil’s internet traffic through the US (84 per cent of traffic transiting the US) is due to monetary considerations, preventing internet service providers (ISPs) from using internet exchange points based in Brazil. Similar patterns were discovered for other countries, with much traffic from Kenya, India and the Netherlands passing through the UK; these paths tend to follow the paths of major international undersea cables and popular internet exchange points.

The researchers also found that much traffic “tromboned” through other countries, even for paths beginning and ending in the same country; approximately 13 per cent of paths from Brazil trombone, mostly through the US.

“As soon as internet traffic enters a country’s borders, it becomes subject to that country’s domestic laws and policies, including things like surveillance or censorship,” said Dr Anne Edmundson, who led the study as a doctoral student at Princeton.

In order to raise awareness among internet users of where their data may be passing through – and to give them control over this – the engineers tested out a tool called Region-Aware Networking (RAN), which allows users to reroute their internet traffic.

Using RAN, users can bypass certain countries by diverting their traffic through intermediate points, although it was found to be less effective at avoiding certain countries. According to the researchers, RAN struggles to help data avoid the US and Europe due to many popular websites being hosted just on servers in the US or Europe.

“The internet grew up without borders, but now people who care about privacy and freedom of expression are starting to be concerned about where their internet traffic goes,” said Professor Jedidiah Crandall, a University of New Mexico computer scientist who was not involved with the study.

“At the same time, nation states are developing their own ideas about borders on the internet. Where the borders actually are today is an important scientific question that this paper makes impressive progress towards answering.”

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