Research and Advances
Computing Applications

Questioning Lawful Access to Traffic Data

The path to technology-neutral policy is fraught with danger as more legislation is updated to deal with new communications infrastructures.
  1. Introduction
  2. Defining Traffic Data
  3. Categorical Determinants
  4. The Shape of Things
  5. References
  6. Authors
  7. Footnotes
  8. Figures

After some successes and many missteps, the regulatory environment surrounding technology policy is transforming. Lessons taken from content, copyright, and cryptography policy processes, among others, have resulted in the emergence of technology policy innovations. Two particular innovations are the internationalization of policy-making, and technology-neutral policies. However, these concepts come with risks that are particularly apparent when we look at policies on lawful access to traffic data.

Access to traffic data for law enforcement purposes is a traditional tool for investigation and intelligence gathering. Traffic data is an elusive term, due in part to technology variances. The policies regarding lawful access to traffic data, however, are increasingly set in technology-neutral language, while the language and policies are often negotiated at closed international fora.

Even while policy changes are argued as necessary due to international obligations and new technological realities, these policies tend to ignore technological details. Just as cryptography policies of key escrow were misinterpreted by government as updates “to maintain the status quo” [8]; updating legal definitions of traffic data while not acknowledging the increased sensitivity of the data is problematic.

In the days of plain old telephone systems (POTS), the content of communications was considered sensitive and therefore any interception required constraint, for example, judicial warrants in the U.S. and politician-authorized warrants in the U.K. The same rule did not apply to traffic data: numbers called, calling numbers, and so on. This data was considered less invasive, and therefore only required minimal constraint. An additional factor was that traffic data was stored by telephone companies and in turn was available for access by law enforcement agencies, while content was not: traffic data was available, legally less sensitive, and so, lawfully accessible.

The policies regarding lawful access to traffic data, however, are increasingly set in technology-neutral language, while the language and policies are often negotiated at closed international fora.

The traffic data records collected by telephone companies are generally of a form similar to:

  • 19991003070824 178 165 0187611205 46732112106——001—-003sth 46 4673000—-0013 14 10260

The most significant fields are date and time of the start of the call, duration of the call, and caller and receiver phone numbers.

Traditional investigative powers of access to traffic data were established with traditional technological environments in mind. Governments are now updating these policies to apply to modern communications infrastructures. If governments insist on applying traditional powers to these new infrastructures, the new policies must acknowledge that the data being collected now is separate from tradition.

Many policy initiatives have involved articulations regarding the importance of being technology neutral. When the Clinton Administration first announced its intention to update lawful access powers, it proposed to “update the statutes in outmoded language that are hardware specific so that they are technologically neutral” [7]. Meanwhile, as noted by the Earl of Northesk in tempestuous debates in the U.K.’s House of Lords regarding the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000: “One of the many difficulties I have with the Bill is that, in its strident efforts to be technology neutral, it often conveys the impression that either it is ignorant of the way in which current technology operates, or pretends that there is no technology at all” [9].

Technology-neutral policy is seen as a way to deal with concerns of governments mandating a specific type of technology. While this is favorable in the case of some policies that affect market developments, technology-neutral lawful access policies may contain hazardous side effects. Indeed, technology-neutral language may be used to ignore the challenges and risks to applying powers to different infrastructures.

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Defining Traffic Data

Intergovernmental organizations, particularly the Group of 8 (G8) and the Council of Europe (CoE), have been working for a number of years to ensure lawful access to traffic data. Both the G8 and the CoE have been criticized by industry and civil society because of their ambiguous and problematic approaches, and the closed nature of their processes. Yet policies continue to be decided there, and brought to national parliaments under the guises of harmonization and international obligations.

The G8 formed a senior experts group in 1995 to develop an international cooperation regime to address transnational organized crime. This Lyon Group has since been active on high-tech surveillance-related policies, including three meetings with industry representatives throughout 2000 and 2001. Arising from that work, the G8 working-definition of traffic data is “non-content information recorded by network equipment concerning a specific communication or set of communications” [10].

The CoE, a 45-member intergovernmental organization, has convened closed meetings since 1997 to develop a treaty establishing lawful access powers across borders. The CoE Convention on Cybercrime defines traffic data as “any computer data relating to a communication by means of a computer system, generated by a computer system that formed a part in the chain of communication, indicating the communication’s origin, destination, route, time, date, size, duration, or type of underlying service” [2]. In the convention’s Explanatory Report [3], the CoE states that traffic data should be defined so as “to not refer” to the content of a communication; but this is a non-binding interpretation.

One is left to wonder what is included and what is excluded by these vague definitions. While subject lines in email may be content, uncertainty arises as to whether the name of files requested (for example, HTTP requests), URLs (for example,, search parameters, TCP, or IP headers, and other such data is considered content or traffic data. A report of a transaction by an individual with server may be considered traffic data; but the name of the Web site(s) run on a server may disclose more information (for example, Search parameters in the URLs and the name of files accessed may refer to the content of the communications. If we consider the next-generation Internet, mobility bindings or routing information included in the IPv6 extended header will include absolute or relative location information. The location information is part of the mobility signaling protocol and hence fits into the definitions of traffic data discussed here.

Some states have tried to deal with this challenge in their legislative language. The U.K.’s Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 went through much iteration, particularly in the so-called “Big Browser” debates, before the language was agreed upon. Traffic data is defined in theory as data about the source and destination of a transaction, and data about the routing and the tying of separate packets together. This definition is complemented by the legal definition of communications data, that is, data used by the network; or exists within logs; or other data collected by service providers. However the definitions are also quite clear about the extent of information that qualifies: this data does not include URLs per se, and may only include the name of the computers running a service, while the specific resource used qualifies as content, and accorded greater protection. Therefore, the IP address in the U.K. is traffic data, while www.url.tld/file.html is tantamount to content.

Other states have failed to respect this level of technological awareness. Previous U.S. policy differentiated between traffic data from cable and telephone communications. The Cable Act once protected traffic data to a greater degree than telephone traffic data, as viewing habits were considered sensitive. Now that cable infrastructure is also used for Internet communications (which were previously used over telephone lines, and thus traditional laws applied), successive White House administrations worked to erase this cable traffic distinction, finally succeeding with the USA Patriot Act. Rather than deal with the specifics of digital communications media and services, the changes in U.S. law reduce the protections of traffic data for cable Internet communications to what had previously existed for telephone communications data.

This can be interpreted as a boon to law enforcement. According to U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft: “Agents will be directed to take advantage of new, technologically neutral standards for intelligence gathering. …Investigators will be directed to pursue aggressively terrorists on the Internet. New authority in the legislation permits the use of devices that capture senders and receivers addresses associated with communications on the Internet” [1].

Traffic data blurs with the content of communications as new communications infrastructures are encompassed under existing practices. The legal protection of this data is reduced as distinctions applied are based on categorical decisions established under older technologies. The separation of content and traffic remains elusive, even in policy language.

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Categorical Determinants

Traffic data under the POTS as considered derivative, and while informative, it did not necessarily disclose the sensitive details of an individual’s life. Under the Cable Act, Congress accepted that the disclosure of individual viewing habits deserved greater protection; but such protections were later deemed unnecessary for the Internet.

Traffic data’s constitution differs by communications medium. Here, we present dial-in records, wireless LANs, and search engines to preview what can accessed by technology-neutral law enforcement powers.

Dial-in records. The Remote Authentication Dial-In User Service (RADIUS) is a client/server security protocol, designed to manage dispersed modem pools for large numbers of users. This tends to involve managing a single database of users, allowing for authentication (verifying user name and password) as well as configuration information detailing the type of service to deliver.

Many ISPs are outsourcing the access network to big operators that provide dial-up connectivity worldwide. Internet users dial into a modem pool attached to a Network Access Server (NAS) that operates as a client of RADIUS. The client is responsible for passing user information to designated RADIUS servers (managed by the ISP) and then acting on the response returned.

The RADIUS server stores usage information for dial-in users, often for billing purposes. When the user is authenticated and the session has been configured according to the authorization information, an accounting start record is created. When the user’s session is terminated, an accounting stop record is created.

The most significant fields of the start/stop records are:

  • Start and Stop Timestamps
  • Timestamp records the “Start” and “Stop” time on the RADIUS accounting host. The duration of a session “Acct-Session-Time” is computed by subtracting the “Start” and “Stop” timestamps.
  • Call(ed,ing)-Station-Id
    • Called-Station-Id records the telephone number called by the user.
    • Calling-Station-Id records the number the user is calling from.

    Figure 1 depicts part of the start and stop RADIUS records.

    From this log we can extract a limited amount of information regarding the content of the communications transactions that took place. The user has been identified (, the number of the caller (01223555111, which is a Cambridge number) and the location being called (02075551000, London), IP address assigned (, the duration (21s), number of bytes and packets sent and received, type of connection, date and time. The traffic data over time identifies the change in location of a user despite the common dialed number. As users roam globally with different access telephone numbers, the user identification remains static. In this sense, the collected traffic data is mildly more sensitive than traditional telephone data: where POTS traffic data pivots around a given telephone/ID number, RADIUS data pivots around a user ID regardless of location; therefore disclosing location shifts. The ISP now knows everywhere their customers connect from; information that may be useful to other parties.

    Wireless LAN association records. Such mobility becomes more problematic within wireless environments. In a standard wireless LAN environment using IEEE 802.11b, a radio cell size can vary from hundreds of meters in open air, to a small airport lounge. Before the mobile station (STA) is allowed to send a data message via an access point (AP), it must first become associated with the AP. The STA learns what APs are present and then sends a request to establish an association.

    The landscape for lawful access powers Remains Quite Fragmented.

    The significant records of a centralized association system log are illustrated in Figure 2 and include:

    • time_GMT
    • Time when a mobile node associates with a base station
  • Cell_ID
    • Base station unique identifier in the LAN
  • MAC_ID
    • A unique identifier of a mobile device.

    In our analysis of collected logs we identified moments where two individuals were alone within a cell, and whether they arrived together. It is tempting to analyze these logs by drawing an analogy with the POTS, that is, a registration of a mobile node with an access point could be seen as the establishment of a phone call between both parties. This analogy is simplistic as it doesn’t consider the Cell_IDs represent places (airport, conference room, restaurants) and the registration timestamps can reveal if two nodes are (moving) together. Data mining of association records (registration and deregistration) can provide sufficient information to draw a map of human relationships [4].

    HTTP requests to a search engine. The media discussed here may involve further traffic data in the form of Internet protocols. The GET and POST methods in the Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) allow a Web client to interact with a remote server. In the most common search engines, the keywords are included in the HTTP header as part of a GET method. All the Web logs can be transformed to a W3C common log file format that contains the IP address of the client, the connection time, the object requested and its size (see Figure 3).

    If traffic data residing in logs is analyzed, a great deal of intelligence can be derived. Observing the logs we can see for example, that has requested (in a short period of time) information about “railway+info+London” and “union+ strike” in two different requests. We may identify not only the patterns of an individual’s movements online, but also interpret an individual’s intentions and plans. Or more dangerously, one could derive false intentions (“child+pornography” may be a search for studies on the effects of pornography on children). Much more can be ascertained with some data mining, even if IP addresses are assigned dynamically, allowing for traceability based on habits and interests; and compounded with location data, previous NAS data, a comprehensive profile can be developed.

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    The Shape of Things

    Even the COE acknowledges, in passing, that the breadth of possible traffic data may be problematic. “The collection of this data may, in some situations, permit the compilation of a profile of a person’s interests, associates and social context. Accordingly Parties should bear such considerations in mind when establishing the appropriate safeguards and legal prerequisites for undertaking such measures” [3].

    However, no such safeguards or prerequisites are mandated nor discussed in detail. The convention text is mute on this matter.

    Shifting between infrastructures gives different data; but converging infrastructures is even more worrisome. Mobile communications systems magnify the sensitivity of traffic data; wireless LANs were presented as an indication of the shape of things to come as we encounter new protocols and infrastructures, for example, third-generation wireless systems running IPv6.

    Yet governments want access to this information. The collection and access methods currently under consideration are preservation (access to specified data of a specific user collected by service providers for business purposes), retention (requiring all logs for all users be stored beyond their business purpose), and real-time (government access to real-time data flows). These powers are enshrined in G8 and CoE agreements; and will be appearing in national laws near you, if they are not already there.

    The national laws that enshrine these collection and access powers differ remarkably, despite being established under the umbrella/guidance of the G8 and the CoE. Neither organization places requirements on countries to require safeguards such as limitation on access, or specified purposes for collection, and authorizations through judicial warrants. We believe that national deliberation on these matters will be limited because governments will claim, as they already have, that the policy changes are required due to international obligations, or worse, technological imperatives. These international policy dynamics thus reduce deliberation and our ability to inform policy discourse.

    The landscape for lawful access powers remains quite fragmented. U.K. law separates URLs from traffic data, and yet practices very weak access constraints (any number of government agencies may access this data); and later proposed retention regimes for periods ranging from four days (Web cache), six months (RADIUS, SMTP, and IP logs), and seven years [5]. The U.S. recently introduced technology neutrality to its laws thus reducing earlier protections, but the U.S. has stronger access protections than the U.K.; and has no retention requirements.

    With over 30 signatory states including the U.S., Canada, Japan, Romania, France, and Croatia, we can rest assured that there will be selective interpretation in implementation of the CoE cybercrime convention. Even among the G8 countries, the protections afforded to citizens’ communications in Italy, Germany, the U.S., and Russia vary greatly.

    While policies may vary, the sensitive nature of the data produced does not. Traffic data analysis generates more sensitive profiles of an individual’s actions and intentions, arguably more so than communications content. In a communication with another individual, we say what we choose to share; in a transaction with another device, for example, search engines and cell stations, we are disclosing our actions, movements, and intentions. Technology-neutral policies continue to regard this transactional data as POTS traffic data, and accordingly apply inadequate protections.

    The Canadian government, claiming its intention to ratify the CoE convention, has already proposed to consider all telecommunications services as equivalent. “The standard for Internet traffic data should be more in line with that required for telephone records and dial number recorders in light of the lower expectation of privacy in a telephone number or Internet address, as opposed to the content of a communication” [6]. This is disingenuous: the civil servants who wrote this policy are the same as those who participated in drafting the CoE and the G8 agreements. Select components of these agreements are thus brought home for ratification while the recommended protections are not.

    This is not faithful to the spirit of updating laws for new technology. We need to acknowledge that changing technological environments transform the policy itself. New policies need to reflect the totality of the new environment.

    These technology policy innovations fail to do so. Governments seek technology-neutral policy, and are doing so at the international level. This appears to be to the advantage of policy-setters. New powers are granted through technological ambiguity rather than clear debate. International instruments, such as those from the Group of 8 and the Council of Europe, harmonize language in a closed way with little input and debate. These problems will grow as more countries feel compelled to ratify and adopt these instruments; or feel it is in their interests to do so. Implementation, however, will still be fragmented and will likely be in the interests of increasing access powers of the state.

    Attempts to innovate policy must be interrogated, lest we reduce democratic protections blindly.

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    F1 Figure 1. RADIUS start and stop records.

    F2 Figure 2. Wireless LAN data logs.

    F3 Figure 3. Sample search engine traffic data.

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      1. Ashcroft, J. Testimony of the Attorney General to the Senate Committee on the Judiciary. Washington D.C. Sept. 25, 2001.

      2. Council of Europe. Convention on Cybercrime, ETS No.185.

      3. Council of Europe. Convention on Cybercrime Explanatory Report (adopted Nov. 8, 2001).

      4. Escudero A. Location data and traffic data. Contribution to the EU Forum on cybercrime. (Brussels, Nov. 2001).

      5. Gaspar, R. Looking to the future: Clarity on communications data retention law: A national criminal intelligence service. Submitted to the Home Office for Legislation on Data Retention on behalf of ACPO and ACPO(S); HM Customs & Excise; Security Service; Secret Intelligence Service; and GCHQ (Aug. 2000).

      6. Government of Canada. Lawful access–Consultation document. Department of Justice, Industry Canada, Solicitor General Canada (Aug. 25, 2002).

      7. Podesta, J. National Press Club Speech. (Washington D.C. July 17, 2000).

      8. Reno, J. Law enforcement in cyberspace. Address presented to the Commonwealth Club of California, San Francisco, 1996.

      9. U.K. Hansard. House of Lords (Committee Stage). Column 1012, June 28, 2000. The Stationery Office Ltd.

      10. U.S. Delegation. Discussion Paper for Data Preservation Workshop. G8 Conference on High-Tech Crime. (Tokyo, May 22–24 2001).

      The data presented here has been obtained with permission from a telephone carrier, an Internet service provider, and a large conference where wireless LAN access was provided. All transactions presented here have been de-identified, and the time logs were altered to reduce the risk of reidentification

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