Tech company encryption push is ‘good for the feds’ says Harvard study

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The rise of mobile computing and more vulnerable internet-connected devices could actually construct surveillance easier for national security officials, report says

When Silicon Valley closes a door for spies, it opens a window.

Thats the conclusion of several former government officials, academics and privacy proponents in a study Harvards Berkman Center for Internet and Society released on Monday.

The report argues that despite talk that encryption from the likes of Apple and Google stymie national security, these companies are making many new technologies that will construct surveillance easier.

Thats a notable finding because the studys authors include several law and order kinds, such as Matthew G Olsen, former director of the National Counterterrorism Center for the Obama administration who is now an executive at IronNet Cybersecurity a startup founded by former National Security Agency director General Keith Alexander.

It comes as many US law enforcement officials, including the FBI director, James Comey, have pressed tech companies to make sure they can access user communications even if they are encrypted as they travel the internet. Law enforcement officials often call this problem, going dark.

Going dark is the wrong metaphor, research reports says. Are we really headed to a future in which our ability to effectively surveil felons and bad actors is impossible? We guess not.

Contributors included cybersecurity luminary Bruce Schneier, former Google senior privacy analyst Susan Landau and current government officials who could not be named because of their day undertakings.

There are several reasons things may not be as bad as they seem for examiners. For one, encryption, which relies on complex math, is very hard to implement correctly. More importantly for technology companies, it can get in the way of their ability to mine user content to better target advertisements.

Moreover, consumers can adopt encrypted messaging apps, but they work on phones and computers that operate other less secure software. This can often give prying eyes an opening, the report says.

And then theres the bright side. As tech companies focus their attention on stimulating more consumer products smart by connecting them to the internet, they increasingly open up new surveillance windows, the report concludes.

For instance, what good is an encrypted telephone call if government examiners can listen in on the call through a microphone in a smart TV in the same room?

In one line that was particularly jarring given the reports writers, such studies indicated, 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.

There are no publicly known instances of governments using court orders to target such technologies. But the prospect is intriguing.

We argue that communications in the future will neither be eclipsed into darkness nor illuminated without shadow, the report says. Some areas are more illuminated now than in the past and others are brightening.

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