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A Harvard study says encryption won’t save us. Soon, we’re all going to be watched

Reuters/Jim Young
I hope no one can see this.
By Aamna Mohdin
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

The attacks in Paris and San Bernardino in the US last year intensified a fierce global debate about encryption and privacy in the era of constant terrorism. Law enforcement warned that criminals were harder to watch thanks to encryption but Silicon Valley has refused to bow down to increasing pressure to allow governments to access encrypted communication.

A new study, from Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, now suggests claims that criminals were “going dark” are overblown. The study was authored by a panel of security experts, which included Matthew G. Olsen, former director of the National Counterterrorism Center under the Obama administration, and Bruce Schneier, a well-known cryptographer.

The paper—titled “Don’t Panic: Making Progress on the ‘Going Dark’ Debate“ (pdf)—notes that while there will always be “communications channels resistant to surveillance,” law enforcement is not heading to a future where it is unable to “effectively surveil criminals and bad actors.”

The study argues that end-to-end encryption—the kind championed by Apple, whereby not even the company can access the data passing through its servers—is unlikely to be implemented on a broad scale as the web is too “fragmented” and the vast majority of companies depend on access to user data to make money. 

The findings also highlights the potential of internet-connected devices to “drastically change surveillance.” Who needs to access encrypted text messages when law enforcement could listen in through a smart TV? “We argue that communications in the future will neither be eclipsed into darkness nor illuminated without shadow,” the report notes. “Some areas are more illuminated now than in the past and others are brightening.”

The findings may calm fears of criminals going underground—but aren’t likely to be good news for privacy advocates.

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