The Role of Deep Packet Inspection in Internet Shutdowns
Internet shutdowns cause economic disruption, stifle citizens’ capacity to access vital online information, and undermine freedom of expression. Despite this, deliberate internet outages remain a common tool used by governments during protests, elections, and conflict.
Internet Service Providers (ISPs) have very little power to refuse when governments order them to restrict their services. However, little is known about the technology ISPs use to block social media platforms and other content.
We believe that an open, free and accessible internet is vital to protect human rights. We have therefore decided to investigate the companies responsible for providing ISPs with technology that enables repressive internet restrictions.
Allot Ltd. is an Israeli telecommunications company that produces and sells a range of products, including Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) technology. While DPI can be used for legitimate purposes, such as restricting access to inappropriate content for children, it can also be used to monitor and block access to social media platforms, political content, and censorship circumvention technologies such as Virtual Private Networks (VPNs).
This report focuses on social media shutdowns and other online content blocks because full internet blackouts do not normally require the use of DPI technology.
One of Allot’s webpages promotes its ability to provide communication service providers with “granular, big data visibility into network, user and application behavior,” and its SmartSentinel product can reportedly help providers “selectively block applications such as VPNs or social media to protect public safety.”
In 2020, the company made between $135 and $140 million in revenue and it reportedly has relationships with over 500 mobile, fixed line and cloud services providers.
View our list of sources, which compiles links to every Allot document and report cited in this investigation
Demand for VPNs often surges during internet restrictions as they provide a means for citizens’ to bypass blocks on specific content. However, authorities frequently retaliate by blocking access to these services.
Allot boasts that it can monitor the traffic of 70 VPNs, which by extension allows its customers, such as ISPs, to block them. On one page of its website, the company says, “As use of VPN apps escalate, prudent operators will seek to ensure that they can observe and keep track of their use.”
On another webpage, the company claims that “Anonymizers/VPN tunnels are typically used to hide a user’s identity and are in use by some to access illegal content or purchase illegal goods, such as drugs.”
Analysis of the company’s investor documents and news reports shows that Allot has commercial relationships with 14 ISPs that have conducted internet disruptions in 21 countries since 2018.
It is nearly impossible to conclusively prove that Allot’s technology was used during a specific shutdown because ISPs often purchase similar technology from a variety of companies. However, the existence of these commercial relationships indicates that it’s likely that their technology has been used in ways that undermines citizens’ fundamental digital rights.
Attribution is made more difficult by the complex and often murky relationship between multinational ISPs and their local subsidiaries. In this report, we have included subsidiaries even if they are not expressly referenced in Allot’s documentation as they may utilize technology originally purchased by their parent company.
For more detailed findings, see our “The Tech Companies Behind Internet Shutdowns: Allot Ltd.” Data Sheet