Friday, April 18, 2008

IP-Relay Systems Paper

IP-Relay Systems - Marisa Loo, Zachary Smith, and Dylan Treleven

Telecommunications relay services allow users to make calls from computers or other assistive telephone devices to standard telephones via an operator. There are several forms of relay services, but here we will focus on Internet Protocol Relay (IP-Relay) systems, as they are the currently the most common. Intended merely as a mode of private communication between users, internet relay services have, however, opened a window of vulnerability into both the public and private spheres. Through their inherent features and the laws which govern their use, IP-Relay systems demonstrate loopholes in government surveillance, limitations toward systems of power and discipline in which they might be used, and the deterioration of their potential for operation in real-time.

Relay services were established in the 1970s with the purpose of aiding those who are Deaf, hard of hearing, speech disabled, or Deaf and blind to make calls to the hearing. The first primitive machines were bulky and expensive and generally only accessible to the few who could afford them. The most common current manifestations of this technology, IP-Relay systems, use an internet window interface with two text boxes. The first user enters text into one of the boxes and a third party human operator connects to the second user and vocally interprets the first user's written text to the second. The second user then speaks to the operator who, in turn, types out the second user's words in the second text box for the first user to read. These services have also been subsidized by the government in the United States (the second country after Sweden to do so) and are now free and accessible to the general public.

This technological progression from a direct link between two users to a mediated link with a third-party operator highlights a correlation between new technology and a breach of private space. According to Keenan, “the erosion of the security of the private sphere figured by the opening of the window forces us to reconsider the space and time…in terms that can no longer be content to accept the restrictions imposed by the thought of publicity as presence.”[1] Greater accessibility has therefore created, through the presence of the operator, just such a window between public and private spaces of the users involved. This accessibility also allows the service to be used, and taken advantage of, by anyone with an internet connection.

Both relay service companies and members of the Deaf community accept this breach of private space as a kind of necessary evil. The mechanics of the relay service as well as the operator must function with the principle of transparency in order to make the call as "normal" as possible. A standard phone call does not require any sort of verification of the user and it is believed that there need not be any sort of verification for relay service calls either.

According to an MSNBC article[2], relay operators report that eighty to ninety percent of the phone calls relayed are scams or prank calls, with very little of the calls being made by legitimate users. Many of the calls are pranks, with the purpose of seeing how much of a message an operator will relay before they determine that the service is being abused. More significantly though, many overseas thieves use IP-Relay services to easily con U.S. merchants under the guise of being deaf.

This flagrant exploitation of IP-Relay services presents a noteworthy loophole in the surveillance systems of our society. Although we are not controlled by a constant panoptic presence, our government depends upon a degree of surveillence in order to establish a sense of order, power, and discipline. This shortcoming in the relay service also opens a window of vulnerability, allowing thieves to take advantage of the general public. When defining windows, Keenan actually uses thieves and open windows in the same sentence, as in "a thief…in at a window climbs.”[3]

The ability of anyone to make calls via IP-Relay can result in certain breakdowns of power and discipline. Without the exercise of power and surveillance that is relevant in Foucault's Panopticon, there is no "automatic functioning of power” despite the transparency of the operator.[4]

Legitimate users of relay services, to the same extent as everyone else, should be afforded the right to private conversation. The possible consequences of allowing such easy abuse of these systems, however, seem to question the cost of an individual's right to privacy, both in terms of its financial cost to tax-payers and even of national security.

The window opened between the public and private may only be the result of a transitional phase in the development of telecommunications relay services. Earlier relay devices offered a direct connection between users, while text-to-voice and voice-to-text technologies, as they become more accurate and efficient, will likely replace the operator in current systems while retaining wide accessibility. At present then, the operator seems to be a necessary, though temporary, drawback to relay systems technologies.

As well as being the key feature of IP-Relay systems in relation to the public/private paradigm, the function of the operator also creates a delay in relayed messages that calls into question the notion of the operation of IP-Relay systems in real-time. With instant messaging services the illusion of real-time usually correlates directly with each user's internet connection speed. With IP-Relay services, it is the speed and attentiveness of the operator that effects the feeling of communication in real-time.

In the Visual Crash, Paul Virilio states that real-time " less an analogical re-presentation than a pure and simple numerical pre-sentation of the places, objects, or persons in question. Such direct live coverage does away with interpreter and commentator to bring the interlocutors together face-to-face."[5] According to Virilio then, with the delay in the operator's relay of a message, sometimes as long as a minute, and with the indirect channel of communication created simply by the presence of the operator, IP-Relay systems do not work in real-time.

A measure of error also accompanies the operator's relay of messages as well as the delay at which it occurs. Some services, such that provided by Sprint Nextel, allow the typing user to insert "emoticons" into his or her message to direct the operator's tone of voice. If carried out at all however, this part of the service varies widely depending upon the operator. While the "instant" actions and reactions allowed by instant messaging can imply a fairly strong sense of emotion and various subtleties of meaning, the delay in IP relayed messages significantly mutes these. In general, these messages are distorted or have lost some of their initially intended meaning.

In regards to IP-Relay’s initial purpose, the system fulfills its goals of communication among the deaf community. However, the presence of the operator in an IP-Relay conversation complicates the entire system. The private is leaked into the pubic, errors are made, and operations cannot function in real-time. The state of telecommunications relay technologies, though it is likely temporary, therefore serves to illustrate an expansion of the public sphere into the private in return for greater convenience and access to communication technologies for those who legitimately utilize them as well as those who wish to exploit them.

[1] Keenan, Thomas. “Windows of Vulnerability.” 1993. The Phantom Public Sphere. Page 135.
[2] Myers, Lisa and Sandler, Tim. “Thieves Exploit Phone System for the Deaf.” 5 December 2006. NBC News.
[3] Keenan, Thomas. “Windows of Vulnerability.” 1993. The Phantom Public Sphere. Page 125.
[4] Foucault, Michel. “Panopticism.” 1979. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Page 201.
[5] Virilio, Paul. “The Visual Crash.” 2002. CTRL [Space]: Rhetorics of Surveillance from Bentham to Big Brother. Page 111.

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