Banning encryption is useless when IoT devices can spy on users

For a while now the US intelligence and law enforcement community has been complaining about the rise of end-to-end encryption, and how it will prevent them from tracking terrorists and other criminals.

They call this inability of following the suspects movements and discovering their plans by surveilling their phone and online communications “going dark”, but a newly released study published by the Berklett Cybersecurity Project of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University explains that the expression is not fitting.

“In this report, we’re questioning whether the ‘going dark’ metaphor used by the FBI and other government officials fully describes the future of the government’s capacity to access communications,” said Berkman Center fellow Bruce Schneier. “We think it doesn’t. While it may be true that there are pockets of dimness, there other areas where communications and information are actually becoming more illuminated, opening up more vectors for surveillance.”

The reasons behind these conclusions are as follows:

  • End-to-end encryption and tech solutions with a similar goal (obscuring data) “are unlikely to be adopted ubiquitously by companies, because the majority of businesses that provide communications services rely on access to user data for revenue streams and product functionality”
  • Software ecosystems are too fragmented
  • Metadata is not encrypted, and in most cases will likely remain so
  • The rise of the Internet of Things is expected to change the surveillance game and provide more opportunities for surveillance. “The still images, video, and audio captured by these devices may enable real-time intercept and recording with after-the-fact access. Thus an inability to monitor an encrypted channel could be mitigated by the ability to monitor from afar a person through a different channel,” they group noted.

The Berklett Cybersecurity Project gathers a diverse group of security and policy experts from academia, civil society, and the US intelligence community.

“The aim of this project is to bring together people who come from very different starting points and roles, and who very rarely have a chance to speak frankly with one another. We want to come away with some common insights that could help push the discussion into some new territory,” commented Prof. Jonathan Zittrain, faculty chair of the Berkman Center.

“These are people who were likely to disagree about many things in the debate, and yet we found common ground,” pointed out Senior Researcher David O’Brien.