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A New Harvard Study Challenges The Government's Stance On Encryption

"‘Going dark’ does not aptly describe the long-term landscape for government surveillance."

Posted on February 1, 2016, at 12:49 p.m. ET

FBI Director James Comey. Jim Watson / AFP / Getty Images

The FBI insists that Silicon Valley’s commitment to robust encryption is undermining its ability to track terrorists and solve crimes, but an array of new connected devices finding their way into our homes will give law enforcement ample means to investigate suspected wrongdoers.

That’s a central argument in a new Harvard study published Monday. Titled “Don’t Panic: Making Progress On The ‘Going Dark’ Debate,” the report finds that the government’s alarmist concerns over “Going Dark,” in which the availability of encrypted phones leaves criminals and terrorists free to conspire, are largely overblown.

“The going dark metaphor suggests that communications are becoming steadily out of reach – an aperture is closing, and once closed we are blind,” states the study. “This does not capture the current state and trajectory of technological development.”

Even as end-to-end encryption on Apple and Android devices prevent prying eyes from reading private messages, a multitude of new, connected devices—in our homes, cars, and on our bodies — aren't nearly as secure. Smart televisions and toasters, light bulbs and door locks will be crammed with sensors, microphones, and cameras, hoovering up and analyzing data, all wirelessly connecting to the internet. These devices, the report argues, could provide law enforcement with novel avenues of surveillance.

Described as the product of a blunt, beyond-the-talking-points exchange among experts who don’t normally participate in public research together, the study was the result of discussions among U.S. intelligence officials, security experts, and academics, including two high ranking officials in the National Security Agency: John DeLong, its director of the Commercial Solutions Center and Anne Neuberger, its chief risk officer.

Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, which organized the study, was careful to note that Delong and Neuberger contributed to the group’s discussions as “core members,” but could not officially endorse the report or its conclusions because of their employment with the U.S. government.

“We’re hardly going dark when – fittingly, given the metaphor – our light bulbs have motion detectors and an open port,” said Jonathan Zittrain, a Harvard law professor and co-founder of the Berkman Center, who led the research project. “The label is ‘going dark’ only because the security state is losing something that it fleetingly had access to, not because it is all of a sudden lacking in vectors for useful information.”

While the study may provide some amount of comfort to law enforcement officials fearing their diminishing powers amid heightened threats, it also points to a troubling future of pervasive surveillance.

“We are hurtling towards a world in which a truly staggering amount of data will be only a warrant or a subpoena away,” said Zittrain. “That’s why this report and the deliberations behind it are genuinely only a beginning, and there’s much more work to do.”

Last year, the Obama administration decided to not seek legislation that would compel tech companies to weaken or alter their encryption products. Top administrations officials, including FBI Director James Comey, have continued to pressure Silicon Valley, however, framing the debate over encryption as a grand collision of values: privacy at odds with national security. Without special government access into encrypted devices, law enforcement officials argue, terrorists and violent criminals could remain beyond their reach.

The Berkman study, while acknowledging the challenges that encryption poses for agencies like the FBI, casts doubt on the argument that it hamstrings law enforcement. Playing with the government’s “Going Dark” metaphor, the study concludes, “We argue that communications in the future will neither be eclipsed into darkness nor illuminated without shadow.”