Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Using Proxy Servers to Watch NFL Games...

On Sunday I came across one of those clear instances where geeky knowledge of internet technologies had practical uses for normal people. A friend found a website that broadcast every single NFL football game (http://sports.yahoo.com/nflgamepass), the only problem was that, due to U.S. law, the service was not available to people in the United States. Our challenge was to use the internet's global architecture to find a way around this and watch the football games.

First, we had to determine how the Yahoo Sports site knew we were located in the U.S. Either our location was determined by IP address, or by the billing address used by our credit card when we opened an account. After some testing, we discovered our IP was what was being used.

This was a relief. With only a little effort, it is very possible to mask your IP address using proxy servers. We figured we'd use an international proxy server to mask our local IP address (and therefore our physical location). We then did a simple google search, went to http://www.publicproxyservers.com/page1.html, found an international proxy that worked, and returned to Yahoo Sports. Voila! The service was now made available to us. My friend purchased the football package and watched all of the games from the comfort of his own home.

A major obstacle in this process, however, is finding a proxy server that has enough bandwidth to reliably carry the football games - which are obviously streamed in video. However, we found there's a work-around to this: once you're logged into the NFL Game Pass site and you've brought up the video feed, you can stop using the proxy and switch back to your local high-speed connection. Basically, it seems that they only require the international IP for the purposes of validating your account at login. Once this is done, a local connection is sufficient to watch the games.

Let me stress that I am not encouraging illegal activities. I am only demonstrating how easily proxy technologies render people's physical locations indeterminable on the internet. The same technologies can be, and have been, used, for example, by political activists in China to access government-blocked websites, by First Amendment proponents of free speech, and by privacy seekers.

How can this behavior be policed, and how can such laws be enforced? It is very difficult, though not altogether impossible for the truly determined - for instance, if the CIA had a crack team of cyberdetectives tracking down terrorists, I'm sure they'd find a way. However, since most websites are still interested in making money, and considering the relatively small handful of people who actually use proxies to this end, I would think that these websites are likely to simply to look the other way.

And considering the other very legitimate and socially beneficial uses of proxies, nobody, not even the government, has any desire for the technology to go away. In fact, it's only likely to improve.
  

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