Reconciling perspectives: New report reframes encryption debate

A new report by The Berklett Cybersecurity Project of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University,“Don’t Panic: Making Progress on the ‘Going Dark’ Debate,” examines the high-profile debate around government access to encryption, and offers a new perspective gleaned from the discussion, debate, and analyses of a diverse group of security and policy experts from academia, civil society, and the U.S. intelligence community.

“Many conversations on sensitive subjects of technology and security are productive because they’re among people who already agree,” said Harvard Law School Professor Jonathan Zittrain ’95, faculty chair of the Berkman Center. “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.”

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. We think it doesn’t.

Berkman Center fellow Bruce Schneier

The report takes issue with the usual framing of the encryption debate and offers context and insights that widen the scope of the conversation to more accurately reflect the surveillance landscape both now and in the future.

“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, a cryptographer and civil liberties author. “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.”

“There’s no question that the use of encryption impedes government surveillance of terrorists and criminals,” said Harvard Law School Lecturer on Law Matthew Olsen ’88, former Director of the National Counterterrorism Center. “And we take seriously the concerns of the FBI and others about encryption. We looked forward to consider the overall trajectory of technology and surveillance, and identified points of consensus about the government’s ability to collect information necessary to protect the public.”

Set within the recent implementation of encryption by various companies and the recent history of the government’s increasing concerns, the report outlines how market forces and commercial interests as well as the increasing prevalence of networked sensors in machines and everyday appliances point to a future with more opportunities for surveillance, not less.

The group and report’s signatories include high-profile individuals who bring a spectrum of perspectives to the table. “The sign-on from this set of participants is unique. These are people who were likely to disagree about many things in the debate, and yet we found common ground,” said Senior Researcher David O’Brien.

The Berkman Center for Internet & Society’s Berklett Cybersecurity Project is led by  Zittrain, Olsen, and Schneier. The name “Berklett” is a portmanteau of “Berkman” and “Hewlett,” as in the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, which generously supports the effort.