Harvard Researchers Debunk Warnings of Terrorists ‘Going Dark’

The Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University on Monday released a report that questions the so-called “going dark” phenomenon.

The U.S. government and its surveillance and law enforcement agencies have been calling for an end to encryption because they say it lets terrorists communicate and plan with impunity and is responsible for going dark — the inability of law enforcement to monitor communications.

That’s not true, according to the Berkman Center, which notes the following:

  • Not all companies likely will adopt end-to-end encryption and other technology for obscuring user data because most businesses providing communications services rely on access to that data for revenue streams and product functionality, including user data recovery;
  • Software ecosystems are fragmented and far more standardization and coordination than currently exists would be needed to ensure that encryption becomes widespread and comprehensive;
  • Networked sensors and the Internet of Things will grow substantially, possibly enabling real-time interception and recording, and, in essence, providing a workaround to encrypted channels; and
  • Metadata isn’t encrypted, and it needs to remain unencrypted in order for systems to operate.

The center is “suggesting a think-it-through-first strategy, which seems obvious but apparently isn’t,” said Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group.

“What we’re currently doing isn’t very effective, and the government should likely fix the not very effective part before they ask for permission to do more surveillance,” he told TechNewsWorld.

Market Forces at Play

“Short of a form of government intervention in technology that appears contemplated by no one outside of the most despotic regimes, communication channels resistant to surveillance will always exist,” the report states. “This is especially true given the generative nature of the modern Internet, in which new services and software can be made available without centralized vetting.”

Market forces and commercial interests “will likely limit the circumstances in which companies will offer encryption that obscures user data from the companies themselves, and the trajectory of technological development points to a future abundant in unencrypted data, some of which can fill gaps left by the very communication channels law enforcement fears will go dark and beyond reach,” the report states.

That hasn’t quelled law enforcement’s calls to limit encryption. FBI Director James Comey has been arguing for an end to encryption, and senior Obama administration officialsmet with high-tech firms’ CEOs last month in what’s been viewed widely as an attempt to get high-tech firms to cooperate with government requests for data and possibly create encryption backdoors.

In November, the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the U.S. National District Attorneys Association released a report on going dark, and made seven recommendations.

Legislators in New York and California last month introduced bills toban the sale of smartphones encrypted by default, on antiterrorism and anti-human trafficking grounds.

More Efficiency Needed

It’s not as if law enforcement — or the U.S. National Security Agency — isn’t scooping up tons of data already.

Back in 2013, the NSA began work on a 600,000-square-foot data center in Utah to house all the data it was getting.

In May, a federal appeals court ruled that the NSA’s telephone metadata collection program was illegal under the Patriot Act.

Some local law enforcement agencies use StingRay phone trackers on the sly, and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency has been collecting data on Americans’phone calls illegally for decades. The U.S. Marshals Service also iscollecting data through specially equipped planes without a warrant.

A Happy Medium?

“There is a lot of value to metadata,” and the Berkman report “might be a compromise that all sides should willingly agree to,” suggested Daniel Castro, vice president at theInformation Technology and Innovation Foundation.

The debate on counterterrorism and privacy “seems to have some entrenched views, and so the Berkman report’s useful in that it tries to shake out some new perspectives,” he told TechNewsWorld. “It’s important for law enforcement to recognize, and start using, many of the other tools at its disposal that do not depend on having backdoor access to encrypted data.”

Richard Adhikari

Richard Adhikari has written about high-tech for leading industry publications since the 1990s and wonders where it's all leading to. Will implanted RFID chips in humans be the Mark of the Beast? Will nanotech solve our coming food crisis? Does Sturgeon's Law still hold true? You can connect with Richard on Google+.

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