DPI: It's Going to Be About More Than Ads

The practice of deep packet inspection has raised privacy concerns among several organizations, including The Free Press and Center for Democracy and Technology. Congress recently heard testimony about ISPs using the technology to target advertising at web surfers. But DPI vendors reveal that advertising is a blunt instrument when it comes to generating revenue. It’s likely most carriers will use DPI, which can determine the details of packets traveling over the web, to boost sales in far more subtle ways.

Kurt Dobbins, chief technology officer of IP services with Arbor Networks, which purchased DPI vendor Ellacoya in January 2008, talked to me last year about the likelihood of using DPI to provide a form of consumption-based broadband. Instead of a flat-out metering program, such packages might offer subscribers an emphasis on voice or gaming services and prioritize packets accordingly. Kevin Walsh, vice president of marketing at Zeugma Systems, has a similar vision. Zeugma, which provides equipment to telecoms,  doesn’t do DPI but can track some information on packets in order to prioritize certain content.

Operators could let consumers subscribe to a broad video package that would include prioritization for a service such as online video. Walsh was quick to point out that such an offering wouldn’t degrade normal Internet traffic, but it’s still an effort that could raise a few eyebrows. Aside from using DPI as a way to offer different broadband packages, Dobbins says it can and will be used as a way to foster security. He stressed that by monitoring network traffic for spam or for computers that are being used in attacks, DPI can alert ISPs and even help them alert affected customers. This is less about spam filtering on a machine for an individual consumer, and more about offering clean pipes, Dobbins said.

However, security does come at the expense of privacy, which is the underlying issue that led to the hearings in Congress in the first place. And so far, DPI has been used by companies such as NebuAd to track surfing habits in order to serve up ads, and Comcast in order to block P2P packets. The technology isn’t evil, but its implementations have been questionable.

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