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IETF Policy on Wiretapping

The information below is for an old version of the document that is already published as an RFC.
Document Type
This is an older version of an Internet-Draft that was ultimately published as RFC 2804.
Authors Fred Baker , Brian E. Carpenter
Last updated 2015-11-11 (Latest revision 2000-02-14)
RFC stream Internet Architecture Board (IAB)
Intended RFC status Informational
Stream IAB state (None)
Consensus boilerplate Unknown
IAB shepherd (None)
Internet-Draft                                        IAB and IESG


Target Category: Informational                         January 2000

                                                Expires: July 2000

IETF Policy on Wiretapping

Status of this Memo

The following text is food for the I-D machinery.

     The file name of this memo is draft-ietf-iab-raven-00.txt

     This document is an internet-draft and is in full conformance with
     all provisions of Section 10 of RFC2026.

     Internet-Drafts are working documents of the Internet Engineering
     Task Force (IETF), its areas, and its working groups.  Note that
     other groups may also distribute working documents as Internet-

     Internet-Drafts are draft documents valid for a maximum of six
     months and may be updated, replaced, or obsoleted by other
     documents at any time.  It is inappropriate to use Internet-
     Drafts as reference material or to cite them other than as "work
     in progress."

     The list of current Internet-Drafts can be accessed at

     The list of internet-draft Shadow Directories can be accessed at

The intended place to discuss this memo is the RAVEN mailing list


The IETF has been asked to take a position on the inclusion into IETF
standards-track documents of functionality designed to facilitate

This memo explains what the IETF thinks the question means, why its
answer is "no", and what that answer means.

IETF position on wiretapping                          IAB and IESG

draft-ietf-iab-raven-00.txt                           Expires July 2000

1. Summary position

The IETF has decided not to consider requirements for wiretapping as
part of the process for creating and maintaining IETF standards.

It takes this position for the following basic reasons:

- The IETF, an international standards body, believes itself to be the
  wrong forum for designing protocol or equipment features that address
  needs perceived by national law, which vary widely across the areas
  that IETF standards are deployed in.
  Bodies that are constrained to a single regime of jurisdiction are
  more appropriate for this task.

- The IETF, being a standards body for communications that pass across
  networks that may be owned, operated and maintained by people from
  numerous jurisdictions with numerous requirements for privacy,
  believes that the operation of the Internet and the needs of its
  users are best served by making sure the security properties of
  connections across the Internet are as well known as possible.
  At the present stage of our ignorance this means making them as free
  from security loopholes as possible.

- Adding a requirement for wiretapping will make the designs
  considerably more complex, thereby jeopardizing the security of
  communications even when it is not being tapped by any legal means;
  there are also obvious risks raised by having to protect the access
  to the wiretap. This is in conflict with the goal above.

- The IETF believes that in the case of traffic that is today going
  across the Internet without being protected by the end systems, the
  use of existing network features, if deployed intelligently, will be
  adequate for the wiretapping needs seen at present. The IETF does not
  see an engineering solution that allows such wiretapping when the end
  systems take adequate measures to protect their communications.

- The IETF restates its strongly held belief, stated at greater length
  in [RFC 1984], that both commercial development of the Internet and
  adequate privacy for its users against illegal intrusion requires the
  wide availability of strong cryptographic technology.

- On the other hand, the IETF believes that mechanisms for wiretapping
  should be openly described, so as to ensure the maximum review of the
  mechanisms and ensure that they adhere as closely as possible to
  their design constraints. The IETF believes that the publication of
  such mechanisms, and the publication of known weaknesses in such
  mechanisms, is a Good Thing.

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IETF position on wiretapping                          IAB and IESG

draft-iab-raven-00.txt                           Expires July 2000

2. The Raven process

The issue of the IETF doing work on legal intercept technologies came
up as a byproduct of the extensive work that the IETF is now doing in
the area if IP-based telephony.

In the telephony world, there has been a tradition that companies that
build telephone equipment add wiretapping features to their telephony-
related equipment, and some traditional telephony standards
organizations have supported this by adding intercept features to their
telephony-related standards.

Since the future of the telephone seems to be intertwined with the
Internet it is inevitable that the primary Internet standards
organization would be faced with the issue sooner or later.

In this case some of the participants of one of the IETF working groups
working on a new standard for communication between components of a
distributed phone switch brought up the issue. Since adding features of
this type would be something the IETF had never done before, the IETF
management decided to have a public discussion before deciding if the
working group should go ahead. A new mailing list was created (the
Raven mailing list, see
for this discussion. Close to 500 people subscribed to the list and
about 10% of those sent at least one message to the list. The
discussion on this list was a precursor to a discussion held during the
IETF plenary in Washington.

Twenty nine people spoke during the plenary session. Opinions ranged
from libertarian: 'governments have no right to wiretap' - to
pragmatic: 'it will be done somewhere, best have it done where the
technology was developed'. At the end of the discussion there was a
show of hands to indicate opinions: should the IETF add special
features, not do this or abstain. Very few people spoke out strongly in
support for adding the intercept features, but a sizable portion of the
audience refused to state an opinion (raised their hands when asked for
"abstain" in the show of hands).

This is the background on the basis of which the IESG and the IAB was
asked to formulate a policy.

3. A definition of wiretapping

The various legal statutes defining wiretapping do not give adequate
definitions to distinguish between wiretapping and various other
activities at the technical level. For the purposes of this memo, the
following definition of wiretapping is used:

Wiretapping is what occurs when information passed across the Internet
from one party to one or more other parties is delivered to a third

1.   Without the sending party knowing about the third party

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IETF position on wiretapping                          IAB and IESG

draft-iab-raven-00.txt                           Expires July 2000

2.   Without any of the recipient parties knowing about the delivery to
  the third party

3.   When the normal expectation of the sender is that his information
  will only be seen by the recipient parties or parties obliged to keep
  the information in confidence

4.   When the third party acts deliberately to target the transmission of
  the first party, either because he is of interest, or because the
  second party's reception is of interest.

Of course, many wiretaps will be bidirectional, monitoring traffic sent
by two or more parties.

Thus, for instance, monitoring public newsgroups is not wiretapping
(condition 3 violated), random monitoring is not wiretapping (condition
4 violated), a recipient passing on private email is not wiretapping
(condition 2 violated).

Telephone call tracing by means of accounting logs (sometimes called
"pen registers") is also wiretapping by this definition, since the
normal expectation of the sender is that the telephone company will
keep this information in confidence.

This definition deliberately does not include considerations of:

- Whether the wiretap is legal or not, since that is a legal, not a
  technical matter

- Whether the wiretap occurs in real time, or can be performed after
  the fact by looking at information recorded for other purposes (such
  as the accounting example given above)

- What the medium targeted by the wiretap is - whether it is email, IP
  telephony, Web browsing or EDI transfers

These questions are believed to be irrelevant to the policy outlined in
this memo.

Wiretap is also sometimes called "interception", but that term is also
used in a sense that is considerably wider than the monitoring of data
crossing networks, and is therefore not used here.

Wiretapping may logically be thought of as 3 distinct steps:

- Capture - getting information off the wire that contains the
  information wanted

- Filtering - selecting the information wanted from information
  gathered by accident

- Delivery - transmitting the information wanted to the ones who want

In all these stages, the possibility of using or abusing mechanisms
defined for this purpose for other purposes exists.

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IETF position on wiretapping                          IAB and IESG

draft-iab-raven-00.txt                           Expires July 2000

4. Why the IETF does not take a moral position

Much of the debate about wiretapping has centered around the question
of whether wiretapping is morally evil, no matter who does it,
necessary in any civilized society, or an effective tool for catching
criminals that has been abused in the past and will be abused again.

The IETF has decided not to take a position in this matter, since:

- There is no clear consensus around a single position in the IETF

- There is no means of detecting the morality of an act "on the wire".
  Since the IETF deals with protocol standardization, not protocol
  deployment, it is not in a position to dictate that its product is
  only used in moral or legal ways.

However, a few observations can be made:

- Experience shows that tools which are effective for a purpose tend to
  be used for that purpose.

- Experience shows that tools designed for one purpose that are
  effective for another tend to be used for that other purpose too, no
  matter what its designers intended.

- Experience shows that if a vulnerability exists in a security system,
  it is likely that someone will take advantage of it sooner or later.

- Experience shows that human factors, not technology per se, is the
  biggest single source of such vulnerabilities.

What this boils down to is that if effective tools for wiretapping
exist, it is likely that they will be used as designed, for purposes
legal in their jurisdiction, and also in ways they were not intended
for, in ways that are not legal in that jurisdiction. When weighing the
development or deployment of such tools, this should be borne in mind.

5. Utility considerations

When designing any communications function, it is a relevant question
to ask if such functions perform the task they are designed for in an
efficient manner, or whether the work spent in developing them is worth
the benefit gained.

Given that there are no proposals on the table, it is not possible to
weigh proposals for wiretapping directly in this manner.

However, as above, a few general observations can be made:

- Wiretapping by copying the bytes passed between two users of the
  Internet with known, static points of attachment is not hard.
  Standard functions designed for diagnostic purposes can accomplish

- Identifying users' points of attachment to the Internet can be
  significantly harder, but not impossible, if the user uses standard
  means of identification. However, this means linking into multiple

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IETF position on wiretapping                          IAB and IESG

draft-iab-raven-00.txt                           Expires July 2000

  Internet subsystems used for address assignment, name resolution and
  so on; this is not trivial.

- An adversary has several simple countermeasures available to him in
  order to defeat wiretapping attempts, even without resorting to
  encryption. This includes Internet cafes and anonymous dialups,
  anonymous remailers, multi-hop login sessions and use of obscure
  communications media; these are well known tools in the cracker

- Of course, communications where the content is protected by strong
  encryption can be easily recorded, but the content is still not
  available to the wiretapper, defeating all information gathering
  apart from traffic analysis.
  Since Internet data is already in digital form, encrypting it is very
  simple for the end-user.

These things taken together mean that while wiretapping is an efficient
tool for use in situations where the target of a wiretap is either
ignorant or believes himself innocent of wrongdoing, Internet-based
wiretapping is a less useful tool than might be imagined against an
alerted and technically competent adversary.

6. Security considerations

Wiretapping, by definition (see above), releases information that the
information sender did not expect to be released.

This means that a system that allows wiretapping has to contain a
function that can be exercised without alerting the information sender
to the fact that his desires for privacy are not being met.

This, in turn, means that one has to design the system in such a way
that it cannot guarantee any level of privacy; at the maximum, it can
only guarantee it as long as the function for wiretapping is not

For instance, encrypted telephone conferences have to be designed in
such a way that the participants cannot know to whom any shared keying
material is being revealed.

This means:

- The system is less secure than it could be had this function not been

- The system is more complex than it could be had this function not
  been present.

- Being more complex, the risk of unintended security flaws in the
  system is larger.

Wiretapping, even when it is not being exercised, therefore lowers the
security of the system.

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IETF position on wiretapping                          IAB and IESG

draft-iab-raven-00.txt                           Expires July 2000

7. Acknowledgements

This memo is endorsed by the IAB and the IESG.

Their membership is:


Harald Alvestrand
Randall Atkinson
Rob Austein
Brian Carpenter
Steve Bellovin
Jon Crowcroft
Steve Deering
Ned Freed
Tony Hain
Tim Howes
Geoff Huston
John Klensin


Fred Baker
Keith Moore
Patrik Falstrom
Erik Nordmark
Thomas Narten
Randy Bush
Bert Wijnen
Rob Coltun
Dave Oran
Jeff Schiller
Marcus Leech
Scott Bradner
Vern Paxson
April Marine

The contributors to the discussion are too numerous to list.

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IETF position on wiretapping                          IAB and IESG

draft-iab-raven-00.txt                           Expires July 2000

8. Author's Address

This memo is authored by the IAB and the IESG.

The chairs are:

Fred Baker, IETF Chair
519 Lado Drive
Santa Barbara California 93111
Phone: +1-408-526-4257

Brian E. Carpenter (IAB Chair)
c/o iCAIR
Suite 150
1890 Maple Avenue
Evanston IL 60201

9. References

[RFC 1984]

     IAB and IESG Statement on Cryptographic Technology and the
     Internet. IAB & IESG. August 1996.

draft-iab-raven-00.txt                                   [Page 8]