Critical Read

Study says law enforcement can make do without encryption override

digital key

What: "Don't Panic: Making Progress in the 'Growing Dark' Debate" -- a report from Harvard University's Berkman Center's Berklett Cybersecurity Project, released Feb. 1.

Why: Law enforcement and intel agencies have warned that criminals and terrorists are "going dark" -- using increasingly strong, commercially available encryption for their communications to evade monitoring. Security and law enforcement agencies have ominously complained that commercial encryption is crippling their investigative and surveillance capabilities and, by extension, opening up a new world of mayhem.

But the rising alarm in the national intelligence and law enforcement communities over increasingly strong encryption capabilities on commercial networks and devices isn't justified, according to a new study.

The Berkman Center said it tapped the expertise of security and policy experts from academia, civil society and the U.S. intelligence community in debates on the encryption issue; the study was a distillation of the points made in those discussions.

Fears of a new world of undetectable communications and crippled government and law enforcement surveillance capabilities, it said, are overblown, and ignore other technological developments and the interplay of commercial market pressures.

The end-to-end encryption and other architectures that obscure user data aren't attractive to companies that provide communications services because those companies use that data for revenue. It also said complete end-to-end encryption is unlikely since "software ecosystems" are mostly fragmented and it would take "far more coordination and standardization than currently exists" to work.

Additionally, it said the fear of suspects and terrorists telecommunications "going dark" rendering surveillance impossible discounts the rise of the Internet of Things, where all manner of devices offer new paths for surveillance. The IoT, it said will make everyday objects capable of providing still images, video and audio, possibly enabling real-time intercept and recording with after-the-fact access.

Verbatim: "Thus an inability to monitor an encrypted channel could be mitigated by the ability to monitor from afar a person through a different channel."

Click here to read the full study.

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a senior staff writer at FCW, whose beat focuses on acquisition, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Energy.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, tele.com magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at mrockwell@fcw.com or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.


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