Media Releases

Researchers map the Internet’s “boomerang routes” where data transfers between Canadians move through the US, increasing exposure to state surveillance

December 16, 2015

Team at University of Toronto launches new mapping tool to help Canadians understand the movement of their Internet data

Toron­to, ON  – Researchers at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to announced today that IXmaps, a visu­al, inter­ac­tive data­base of Inter­net traf­fic routes, is now live. The tool, fund­ed by the .CA Com­mu­ni­ty Invest­ment Pro­gram, helps Cana­di­ans under­stand how their Inter­net traf­fic moves, and how cer­tain traf­fic routes (known as ‘boomerang routes’) move data through the Unit­ed States and into the juris­dic­tion of the U.S. Nation­al Secu­ri­ty Agency before return­ing to Cana­da.

Key facts

  • Canada’s Inter­net infra­struc­ture is inti­mate­ly linked to U.S. net­works. Many of the major Inter­net providers in Cana­da have net­works that favour north — south con­nec­tions, push­ing Cana­di­an data flows toward key Amer­i­can rout­ing hubs in New York, Chica­go, Seat­tle or Cal­i­for­nia.
  • The most pop­u­lar sites Cana­di­ans vis­it online, such as Google, Face­book, Youtube or Ama­zon, are based in the Unit­ed States. When using these ser­vices, Cana­di­ans like­ly rec­og­nize the fact that their data leaves exclu­sive Cana­di­an juris­dic­tion and is exposed to Amer­i­can mass sur­veil­lance under such laws as the Patri­ot Act.
  • Cana­di­ans may be sur­prised to learn how­ev­er that when access­ing Cana­di­an sites, even those in the same city, their data often still flows through the Unit­ed States. IXmaps research has found thou­sands of Inter­net traf­fic routes in which both ends of a data trans­fer are locat­ed in Cana­da, but the infor­ma­tion trav­els via the U.S. These are known as boomerang routes.
  • Expos­ing pri­vate or sen­si­tive data, such as health infor­ma­tion, stu­dent records, polit­i­cal affil­i­a­tion, reli­gious beliefs, finan­cial infor­ma­tion, con­tro­ver­sial view­points or inti­mate com­mu­ni­ca­tions, to for­eign sur­veil­lance is high­ly prob­lem­at­ic. Even when shar­ing rel­a­tive­ly innocu­ous infor­ma­tion on social media, Cana­di­ans have a right to expect their pri­va­cy rights will be respect­ed.
  • There are sev­er­al ways that com­pa­nies and orga­ni­za­tions can work to lim­it the risk of their cus­tomer or client data need­less­ly mov­ing through the Unit­ed States. Thanks to invest­ment from the Cana­di­an Inter­net Reg­is­tra­tion Author­i­ty, there is now a nation­al net­work of Inter­net exchange points across Cana­da that allow Cana­di­an IXPs to peer and exchange Inter­net data with­in Cana­da. Con­sumers should be aware of and com­fort­able with their ISP’s lev­el of com­mit­ment to main­tain­ing data pri­va­cy.

Exec­u­tive quotes

“There is noth­ing inher­ent­ly wrong with data mov­ing unen­cum­bered across an inter­con­nect­ed glob­al Inter­net infra­struc­ture. It is, how­ev­er, crit­i­cal that Cana­di­ans under­stand the impli­ca­tions of their data being stored on U.S servers and mov­ing through U.S. juris­dic­tion. ISPs need to be trans­par­ent, pri­va­cy pro­tec­tive and account­able cus­to­di­ans of user infor­ma­tion in this regard. Inter­net users should be ful­ly informed con­sumers and cit­i­zens when mak­ing choic­es about their sen­si­tive per­son­al data.”

  • Andrew Clement, Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to

“Inter­net advo­cates across Cana­da have long recog­nised that tru­ly Cana­di­an Inter­net infra­struc­ture is the only way to keep Cana­di­ans’ data under the purview of Cana­di­an laws. At the Cana­di­an Inter­net Reg­is­tra­tion Author­i­ty we have invest­ed heav­i­ly in the east to west back­bone of Inter­net exchanges points required to main­tain Cana­di­an Inter­net traf­fic routes.”

  • Jacques Latour, chief tech­nol­o­gy offi­cer at the Cana­di­an Inter­net Reg­is­tra­tion Author­i­ty

“Few Cana­di­ans real­ize just how much of our every­day Inter­net traf­fic trav­els through the U.S. You could be in a restau­rant in down­town Mon­tréal email­ing your friend across the street, and that data could eas­i­ly be trav­el­ing through the U.S., where it’s sub­ject to inva­sive NSA sur­veil­lance. That’s why it’s so impor­tant that Cana­di­ans pitch in, and help us learn more about the paths our data actu­al­ly takes online.”

  • Lau­ra Tribe, Dig­i­tal Rights Spe­cial­ist, Open­Media

Cana­di­ans can learn from and con­tribute to IXmaps

  • IXmaps has a crowd­sourced data­base of over 40,000 inter­net routes, which you can map selec­tive­ly via the Explore page of the web­site. It is work­ing to expand its data­base to bet­ter rep­re­sent all regions of Cana­da and all ISPs. Cana­di­ans can con­tribute to this research to help bet­ter under­stand how dif­fer­ent regions, ISPs, and web­sites, influ­ence the routes that our data takes online and the hence the pri­va­cy risks they are exposed to.
  • Con­tribut­ing data involves installing the IXmaps Client tracer­oute gen­er­at­ing soft­ware built by the IXmaps devel­op­ment team. The soft­ware ini­ti­ates anonymized tracer­oute requests from your loca­tion and shares the results via the Explore page of the web­site.

Addi­tion­al resources

About .CA and the Com­mu­ni­ty Invest­ment Pro­gram

Through the Com­mu­ni­ty Invest­ment Pro­gram, .CA funds projects that demon­strate the capac­i­ty to improve the Inter­net for all Cana­di­ans. The .CA team man­ages Canada’s coun­try code top-lev­el domain on behalf of all Cana­di­ans. A Mem­ber-dri­ven orga­ni­za­tion, .CA rep­re­sents the inter­ests of Canada’s Inter­net com­mu­ni­ty inter­na­tion­al­ly.


For more infor­ma­tion or inter­view requests:     

Ryan Sax­by Hill, Com­mu­ni­ca­tions man­ag­er for .CA
613–237-5335 ext. 285

Lau­ra Tribe, Dig­i­tal Rights Spe­cial­ist for Open­Media
+1 (888) 441‑2640, ext. 2

Andrew Clement, Pro­fes­sor Emer­i­tus, iSchool, Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to