Most people probably have no idea what IPv6 Day is, but today marks the beginning of one of the greatest technological overhauls since mankind adopted paper money. On 6 June 2012, key Internet players from Google to Daily Kos and Internet Service Providers (ISP) including Comcast, Time Warner and AT&T will begin shifting from the current IPv4 to IPv6 Internet protocol (see here for full list). This change has been in the works for a long time, and in the short term most consumers won’t even notice the change. (Those still curious can check out their system’s readiness here).
However, the technological shift will mean that companies like AT&T and Comcast will be able to monitor and track what consumers are doing on each computer and online device using separate, unique IP addresses. And that means that advertising companies and governments will be able to follow users’ every click on the web, every “like”, every email, and every search.
At CALPIRG, we believe that no company should be able to track, and profit from, your online activity without your knowledge and consent. Consumers should be able to control their personal information, in part so that they can protect themselves from identity theft. As new technologies develop and provide new capabilities, consumer privacy laws must be updated and strengthened in order to ensure that our privacy is not left behind.
When the Internet was first invented, it was designed to facilitate end-to-end communication among a limited group of academics and government agencies. At the time 4.3 billion unique IP addresses seemed plenty. But as the Internet grew to include a third of the planet’s population, IP addresses began running out. By February 2011, the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) handed out its last IPv4 addresses, leaving the remaining blocks to regional registries to exhaust within a few months. To solve this problem IPv4 will be replaced by IPv6, with its 340 undecillion (that’s 36 zeros) worth of unique IP addresses.
An IP address on IPv4 networks was not a perfect identifier of a single user – since multiple devices could share a single IP address. With IPv6, all that changes. With no shortage of IP addresses, each device that connects to the web can be given a unique identifier that will follow it wherever it goes. While this makes web-based communication much simpler, the negative implications for online privacy cannot be overstated. In an IPv6 enabled world, advertising companies and governments will be able to follow users’ every click on the web.
Luckily, the good people who developed IPv6 were aware of the dire implications this system could reap upon consumer privacy. They developed a system that would generate and assign semi-random IP addresses to individual users that would provide similar online anonymity to that which exists today on IPv4 networks. Yet this safeguard has one major flaw: It trusts parties responsible for assigning IP addresses to participate in the pseudo-anonymization process, and not forcibly assign a specific IP address to each device on their network.
Who would want to forcibly assign a specific IP address to our devices? Companies like AT&T and Comcast would love to do that as it could provide them with a treasure trove of data regarding their customer’s web habits that they could then use or even sell to marketers. Less enlightened governments may also like to keep checks on exactly what each citizen is doing online. Indeed, IPv6 Day is accompanied by ominous clouds lingering over online consumer privacy and safety.
This monumental change in Internet protocols provides not only risks to consumers but also great opportunities for good. If IP addresses become personally identifiable information – much like a Social Security Number – then they should be recognized as such and protected. Consumers need be informed of the information is being gathered about them and how it is being used. Central to these efforts to ensure consumer privacy is empowering consumers with the ability to opt-in, and out, of data collection. In this way, the community of Internet users will be able to safely create, innovate, share, and enjoy all that the World Wide Web has to offer.