British government to mandate IPv6?

An illustration of an example IPv6 address
An illustration of an example IPv6 address (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I did not vote for either party in the current coalition government in Britain and I doubt I ever will. But credit where credit is due – they have done quite a good job at beginning to fix (most) government IT procurement and actually made the claim of the previous Labour government that they were open to using free and open source software (FOSS) real.

Still they have not fixed all IT procurement – the politically driven “Universal Credit” project looks to me like it will make all the failed big procurements of the Labour years look like well-thought-through successes. The lesson is that when IT policy passes out of the hands of Francis Maude at the Cabinet Office – who has done so much to drive the politics on FOSS – then the government heads for disaster.

The latest, and possibly the biggest yet (as it might wreck the mobile data market if pushed too far) potential disaster seems to have been signalled in the “Queen’s Speech” – the formal outlining of the government’s legislative programme for the next year. In it the Queen, on behalf of the government, pledged:

In relation to the problem of matching internet protocol addresses, my government will bring forward proposals to enable the protection of the public and the investigation of crime in cyberspace.

This is to replace the so-called “snoopers’ charter” – a proposal, much like that from the previous Labour government (which the Tories scrapped within days of coming to office only to attempt to revive two years later), to force service providers to maintain records of all internet browsing and emails (records in the form of which computer interacted with which rather than the content of the communications) so that these might be accessed by the police and the domestic security service, MI5.

The revived proposal was squashed by the Liberal Democrats, the coalition’s junior partner, on “civil liberties” grounds. But now it seems that the Lib Dems have also been persuaded something needs to be done and so have backed an idea – agreed with the Tories – to give every device that connects to the internet its own IP address.

Great idea! Except – well, it just won’t work with the bulk of today’s internet.

It is quite difficult to know exactly what the government are thinking of, as the whole idea seems too cracked, but let us give an (entirely fictitious) example. Mr A. Docstudent has been accused of smuggling quails’ eggs into the UK but when the police raid his home they find nothing, they still suspect he’s been in touch with Mr B. I. G. Smuggler, the quails’ eggs kingpin, and that he has been sending emails from various university networks using the fake identity Ms N. O. Clu.

The problem is, without a record of when Docstudent authenticated his devices against the international Eduroam network they cannot even prove Docstudent was on a university campus at the time. But if everyone of Docstudent’s devices had a unique internet address then they could simply point to that and say “you used your Psion 3 to send that one, you used your Sinclair ZXMobile to send that one” and so on.

So an easy solution is to give every device a unique IP address – after all all your devices already have a hardware identification through the so called “MAC address” which is unique to your machine. Force retailers to log who has which unique address (which can be based on the MAC address) and you do have something of a nightmare of a register, but it’s simpler than the “snoopers’ charter”. Or we could just ignore that and just go for raids and test the MAC addresses of all seized devices against the unique identification.

And we even have a fully worked out way of converting MAC addresses into unique network addresses – via version 6 of the Internet Protocol (IPv6).

And this is where it all falls apart because no one, or hardly anyone, uses IPv6, no one, or hardly anyone, knows how to set IPv6 up and no one, absolutely no one, has shown any willingness to pay the costs of converting today’s IPv4 networks into IPv6 networks.

For good technical reasons – IPv4 has run out of addresses – there have been excellent reasons to convert to IPv6 for years but the fact that it has not happened tells its own story. If the government mandated that all new network connections had to be IPv6 then most ISPs would likely go out of business and goodness knows what would happen to the mobile phone network (where providers currently treat their networks as walled IPv4 gardens and use the private nature of their networks to keep bad things out and to contain contagions inside their own networks – having a unique, internet visible IPv6 address would likely shatter that).

And, in any case, I am not convinced it would work. All Docstudent would have to do is route Clu’s emails via a foreign IPv4 server and the IPv6 address would be shaved off – unless, that is, the government proposes to cut the UK off from the rest of the world!

Anyway, that is my reading of what is going on here and why it is likely to fail, leaving Home Secretary Theresa May with huge quantities of egg on her face and wasting a lot of public money if this is ever tried seriously. If someone knows a way they could do this without these problems, step right up and set me to rights!


3 responses to “British government to mandate IPv6?”

  1. I’m pretty sure that DECnet changed the MAC that an adaptor reported on the wire. And the Wikipedia link you give says that it can be done. So where’s the traceability,eh?

    1. Yes, you are right – I had forgotten that was possible, but as you say it’s relatively simple.

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