Proposals like the Cal-INDUCE bill often assume that it’s reasonably easy to monitor network traffic to block certain kinds of data from being transmitted. In fact, there are many simple countermeasures that users can (and do, if pressed) use to avoid monitoring.

As a simple example, here’s an interesting (and well known) technical trick. Suppose Alice has a message M that she wants to send to Bob. We’ll treat M as a number (bearing in mind that any digital message can be thought of as a number). Alice chooses a random number R which has the same number of digits as M. She sends the message R to Bob; then she computes X = M-R, and sends the message X to Bob. Obviously, Bob can add the two messages, R + (M-R), and the sum will be M – the message Alice originally wanted to send him.

[Details, for mathematical purists: all arithmetic is done modulo a large prime P; R is chosen randomly in [0, P-1]. When I say a value “looks random” I mean that it is indistinguishable (in the information-theoretic sense) from a random value.]

Now here’s the cool part: both of the messages that Alice sends look completely random. Obviously R looks random, because Alice generated it randomly. But it turns out that X looks random too. To be more precise: either message by itself looks completely random; only by combining the two messages can any information be extracted.

By this expedient, Alice can foil any network monitor who looks at network messages one at a time. Each *individual* message looks innocuous, and it is only by storing messages and combining them that a monitor can learn what Alice is really telling Bob. If Alice sends the two messages by different paths, then the monitor has to gather messages from multiple paths, and combine them, to learn what Alice is telling Bob.

It’s easy for Alice to extend this trick, to split her message M into any number of pieces. For example, Alice could split M into five pieces, by generating four random numbers, R1, R2, R3, and R4, and then computing X = M-(R1+R2+R3+R4). Given any four of these five pieces, nothing can be deduced. Only somebody who has all five pieces, and knows to combine them by addition, can extract information. So a monitor has to gather and compare many messages to see what Alice is up to, even though Alice isn’t using encryption.

There are many more technical tricks like this that are easy for Alice and Bob to adopt, but hard for network monitors to cope with. If the monitors want to engage in an arms race, they’ll lose.