January 08, 2016

T-Mobile's CEO John Legere and the Big Lie About Internet Video

Buried among his recent expletive-laden rants against Google, EFF, and everybody else who doesn't agree with him, T-Mobile USA's CEO John Legere has explicitly claimed that he has a "propriety technology" to detect video streams and deal with them specially -- according to EFF, essentially by just slowing them way, way down and creating a terrible user experience for many viewers (see: "T-Mobile's Tampering with Video Is Bad for Everyone, Not Just Google" - https://lauren.vortex.com/archive/001141.html).

So let's think a bit about what his ostensible "proprietary technology" might be, given that most video streams these days are in encrypted SSL/TLS data channels.

Now, I doubt very much that John has cracked SSL/TLS, nor is even he likely insane enough to be attempting man-in-the-middle attacks on encrypted communications.

So what other possibilities have we?

One would be that John is basing his assumptions about identifying video on the source of the data. For example, if he sees traffic sourcing from an ip address that he thinks can be traced back to YouTube, he declares that data to be video.

But such assumptions can become problematic very quickly.

Content distribution on the Internet these days is very complicated, often involving arrays of shared NAT addresses, CDNs (Content Delivery Networks), and an array of other complicated techniques ("twisty passages, all different" galore, to paraphrase the old ADVENTURE game).

As a result, using the source ip address as a video indicator is very much a guessing game, with a likely very high error rate and resulting inaccurate categorizations.

But hey, it's quite possible that John is happy to live with such error rates, especially given that inaccurately tagging a non-video stream as video is to T-Mobile's benefit under his data slowing scheme.

There's another possibility though, that is arguably the most likely of all. John may be simply looking at the amount of data that appears to be coming through connections and declaring to be video the ones that seem to contain significant amounts of "continuous" data, on the assumption that they're the most likely to be video streams.

In the surveillance terms of NSA and their various global counterparts, this would be considered to be a rudimentary form of "traffic analysis" (in fact, the analysis of ip source addresses I mentioned earlier would also fall into this category) -- that is, attempting to derive useful information from patterns of traffic flow, even when you can't decrypt the actual payload contents of encrypted communications.

And in fact, there is already anecdotal evidence that relatively large non-video data transfers are now seeing slowdowns on T-Mobile, exactly what one would expect if aggressive, incorrect categorizations of encrypted data as video are occurring.

The bottom line appears to be that T-Mobile may have been caught in a lie, and when they were called out on it, their CEO let loose an array of obscene, incoherent rants like some sort of nightmarish telecom industry incarnation of Donald Trump.

Unfortunately, this leaves in something of a bind the legions of T-Mobile USA customers, many of whom moved to T-Mobile specifically because they despised the various practices of AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint. Thanks to the tiny oligarchy of mobile carriers here in the U.S., we seem to be well and truly screwed.

There are various innovative mobile service resellers, like Google's Project Fi and others, but these are ultimately still dependent on the network infrastructures of the major carriers. Local mesh networks have yet to prove practical for non-techie users. And when you're not in range of a usable public Wi-Fi access point, you need a mobile carrier.

Most of the payphones are gone. Unreeling very, very, very long telephone extension cords from your car trunk on the road back to a home landline connection seems iffy at best.

Yep, the way things are going, we probably should at least be researching techniques to help keep that string taught between tin cans over several thousand miles.

Be seeing you.

I have consulted to Google, but I am not currently doing so -- my opinions expressed here are mine alone.

Posted by Lauren at January 8, 2016 11:44 AM | Permalink
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