Dan Misener: Sidestepping Apple's geoblock could put Canadians on NSA's radar

Some people use geoblocking circumvention services to get access to foreign services such as iTunes Radio, but obscuring your online identity could have unexpected consequences, writes Dan Misener.

Defeating geoblocking technology can have unexpected consequences

Eddy Cue, Apple's senior vice-president of Internet Software and Services, introduced iTunes Radio during the keynote address of the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference on June 10. The service will only be available in the U.S. when it launches. (Eric Risberg/AP)

Apple is getting in the radio business. Apple's senior vice-president of Internet Software and Services, Eddy Cue, announced a streaming music service yesterday called iTunes Radio.

Like so many other shiny new online services, it'll be U.S.-only at launch.

"Fine," you say, "I'll use a proxy server. Or a VPN."

Many Canadians use services like TunnelBear and Unblock-Us to access geoblocked content. When your tech-savvy friends brag about having access to Spotify, or the U.S. version of Netflix, these services are likely how they do it.

Essentially, geoblocking circumvention services can make your computer appear as though it's physically located outside of Canada. From the perspective of Hulu, or Netflix, or Spotify, or Pandora, you can make it seem that you're in the United States.

And indeed, these workarounds may work if Apple uses geolocation tools to restrict access to iTunes Radio. (Though they might not, and instead opt to tie access to a user's Apple ID, which are assigned country-by-country.)

But is this legal?

"It's very difficult to point to a statute that says, 'Thou shalt not use geolocation avoidance services,'" says Mark Hayes, a lawyer who specializes in intellectual property and technology. "There doesn't appear to be any clear law against it, at least not in Canada. But there are probably certain types of contractual restrictions in the terms of use of some of the services."

In other words, proxy servers and VPN services aren't inherently against the law. But depending on what you access while connected to them, you could be breaking a company's terms of use.

For instance, the U.S. version of Apple's Terms and Conditions clearly states: "The iTunes Service is available to you only in the United States, its territories, and possessions. You agree not to use or attempt to use the iTunes Service from outside these locations." If you try to access a U.S.-only feature (like iTunes Radio) from Canada, you could be breaking those terms of use.

"It's possible, in theory, that the owner of the website could come after someone who was trying to circumvent these restrictions," explains Hayes. "But in reality, that's a very unlikely scenario."

However, these days, I wonder if it's wise to pretend my computer is located outside of Canada, given how much we've learned over the past week about U.S. Government surveillance programs.

We already know that Canadians who use American web services run the risk of being caught up in these programs, and we know that the NSA is specifically interested in foreign threats.

When we talk about using a proxy server, or a VPN service, we're talking about using technology to cloak or conceal a computer's true location. Even if you're concealing your location for something relatively innocuous (like streaming a TV show), there's a chance that simply concealing your location could be interpreted as suspicious.

"I don't think that the security services are going to be looking for people trying to hack in to get at American TV shows, or movies, or music. They've got a bigger fish to fry than that," says Mark Hayes.

That said, "there is always a risk online when you seek to try to obscure your identity."

Personally, I plan to wait until iTunes Radio officially arrives in Canada before I check it out.