A new Harvard study stands by companies that use software encryption in products, explaining that authorities will have abundant amounts of data to feed their surveillance hunger.
The study shows that the ever-growing Internet of Things gives law enforcers access to a myriad of information pertaining to the user of the connected devices. The transformation of traditional households into Smart Homes gave birth to the Internet of Things, which comprises everything from vehicles and smart TVs to IP video cameras, all of which are Internet connected.
"Law enforcement or intelligence agencies may start to seek orders compelling Samsung, Google, Mattel, Nest or vendors of other networked devices to push an update or flip a digital switch to intercept the ambient communications of a target," the report says (PDF).
The authors of the study are members of the Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Some prominent members of the Berkman Center are Matthew G. Olsen, former director of the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center, Jonathan Zittrain from Harvard Law School and security expert Bruce Schneier.
All of the aforementioned experts are also part of the Berkman Center's Berklett Cybersecurity Project that specializes in fending off cyber attacks and solving surveillance problems.
The United States and the United Kingdom saw mounting pressure from government officials toward the tech industry to make software encryption a thing of the past. The authorities say that the current approach to security hinders their efforts into apprehending terrorists and criminals.
Leaders from intelligence services fear that such villainous actors will "go dark" due to the powerful encryption found in handsets, for example.
People who own devices that rely on end-to-end encryption are the only ones who can decode the information from said devices. This means that unless law enforcers can get the password to the device, any surveillance is pointless. This happens because end-to-end-encryption is painstakingly difficult to decrypt by standardized means.
The Harvard study, which bears the title "Don't Panic: Making Progress On The 'Going Dark' Debate," explains that encryption is here to stay. However, it clarifies that encryption is not as ubiquitous as the government officials want us to believe.
"To be sure, encryption and provider-opaque services make surveillance more difficult in certain cases," the report says. However, the authors of the report show that the data landscape is much more complex.
The study further notes that even if shady places will always be present, there is a long way to go before fully going dark.
One of the study's arguments relies on the business model found in a lot of consumer Web services. These services need as much data about their customers as they can get in order to better market their products. This means that it would be counterintuitive for them to use end-to-end encryption.
What is more, it is unlikely that the "vast majority" of metadata will remain unencrypted in the near future. Metadata is the information that allows for the transfer of data and includes details such as phone call records location data from phones, email headers, and phone call records.
The study notes that technology is heading toward having a flood of unencrypted data, countering accusations from officials who claim that encryption is widespread.
Back in October 2014, FBI Director James Comey articulated the challenges that arise from criminal masterminds going dark.
He explained that the law lagged behind technology when it comes to surveillance, which created a series of public safety issues. He goes on to add that, in spite of what Hollywood and television might show, the FBI does not have instant access to users' information. Comey says that all intelligence organisms are under strict guidance and oversight so that no unlawful trespassing into the lives of honest citizens occurs.
"And if the challenges of real-time interception threaten to leave us in the dark, encryption threatens to lead all of us to a very dark place," Comey said at the time.
In a speech from two years ago, the FBI leader also brought into discussion the current hot topic of mobile backdoors. As Apple is one of the unyielding defenders of end-to-end encryption, it seems that the feud between the tech industry and intelligence officials lives on.