Internet Boomerang Routing: Surveillance, Privacy and Network Sovereignty in a North American Context

Posted: 1 Apr 2013

See all articles by Andrew Clement

Andrew Clement

University of Toronto - Faculty of Information

Jonathan A. Obar

York University; Quello Center - Michigan State University

Date Written: March 31, 2013


Due to technical and political economic choices made principally by private corporations, worldwide internet traffic is often routed through the United States. For example, in 2005 it was estimated that 94 percent of internet traffic routed between Latin America and Asia or Latin America and Europe passed through switches in the U.S. (Bamford, 2009). Packets originating and terminating in the same country may also travel via the U.S. - a process we refer to as ‘boomerang routing’.

Beyond the economic and network performance issues of increased latency, boomerang routing raises several policy concerns, many emanating from the alleged surveillance practices of U.S. government agencies, most notably the National Security Agency (NSA). Unchecked surveillance of foreign internet traffic, a practice protected and engendered by the U.S. Patriot Act, threatens national network sovereignty, or the concept that a nation should have control over the routing, maintenance and protection of its internet traffic. A loss of network sovereignty threatens civil liberties as users become subject to the laws and policies of foreign governments, corporations and others engaging in surveillance.

It is worth noting that the prospect of NSA surveillance may also be damaging to the reputation of the U.S. government and its ISPs, painting the American government as a ‘surveillance state’ that cannot be trusted. The outcomes of this potential shift in reputation could include the political economic consequences of physical layer circumvention efforts by would-be sovereign nations protecting traffic from interception.

This paper describes ongoing research aimed at rendering more visible and amenable to public policy treatment the relatively hidden aspects of backbone routing. By mapping the routes packets take across North America, we seek to shed light on the phenomenon of ‘boomerang routing’ from several policy perspectives. Taking Canadian boomerang routing as a case study, we show its extent and recurring patterns. In particular, we examine how relations between different classes and nationalities of carriers, as well as the availability of local public peering points affects whether data is routed internally within Canada or whether it transits the U.S.

This research draws on our IXmaps database (see:, which contains over 22,000 individual traceroutes spanning North America. About 2500 of these originate and terminate in Canada. Well over a third are boomerang routes, initiated from public and private locations in Canada that transit the United States before ending at similarly public and private locations in Canada. Nearly all of this boomerang traffic passes through cities where the NSA is strongly suspected of having installed splitter operations.

We will highlight implications of this research for ongoing internet governance negotiations, such as the recent ‘failed’ World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT-12), as well as how nations whose internet traffic is often routed via the U.S. may advance their network sovereignty. In particular we will discuss the prospect for governments and internet businesses to promote the establishment of national public internet exchanges that can help reduce congestion, enhance network performance and keep personal data under national privacy jurisdiction.

Works Cited

Bamford, J. (2009). The shadow factory: The ultra-secret NSA from 9/11 to the eavesdropping on America. New York: Doubleday.

Suggested Citation

Clement, Andrew and Obar, Jonathan A., Internet Boomerang Routing: Surveillance, Privacy and Network Sovereignty in a North American Context (March 31, 2013). Available at SSRN:

Andrew Clement

University of Toronto - Faculty of Information ( email )

140 St George Street
Toronto, Ontario M5S 3G6

Jonathan A. Obar (Contact Author)

York University ( email )

4700 Keele Street
Toronto, Ontario M3J 1P3

Quello Center - Michigan State University ( email )

East Lansing, MI 48824
United States

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