WASHINGTON • For more than two years the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and other intelligence agencies in the United States have warned that encrypted communications are creating a "going dark" crisis that will keep them from tracking terrorists and kidnappers.
Now, a study in which current and former intelligence officials participated concludes that the warning is wildly overblown, and that a raft of new technologies - like television sets with microphones and Web-connected cars - are creating ample opportunities for the US government to track suspects, many of them worrying.
"'Going dark' does not aptly describe the long-term landscape for government surveillance," concludes the study, published yesterday by the Berkman Centre for Internet and Society at Harvard.
The study argues that the phrase ignores the flood of new technologies "being packed with sensors and wireless connectivity" that are expected to become the subject of court orders and subpoenas, and are already the target of the National Security Agency (NSA) as it places "implants" into networks around the world to monitor communications abroad.
The products, ranging from "toasters to bedsheets, light bulbs, cameras, toothbrushes, door locks, cars, watches and other wearables", will give the government increasing opportunities to track suspects and, in many cases, reconstruct communications and meetings, the study says.
Titled Don't Panic: Making Progress On The 'Going Dark' Debate, the study is among the sharpest counterpoints yet to the contentions of FBI director James Comey, and other government officials, mostly by arguing that they have defined the issue too narrowly.
The products, ranging from "toasters to bedsheets, light bulbs, cameras, toothbrushes, door locks, cars, watches and other wearables", will give the government increasing opportunities to track suspects and, in many cases, reconstruct communications and meetings.
During the past year they have repeatedly told Congress that the move by Apple to automatically encrypt data on its iPhone, and similar steps by Google and Microsoft, are choking off critical abilities to track suspects, even with a court order.
The Harvard study, funded by the Hewlett Foundation, was unusual because it involved technical experts, civil libertarians and officials who are, or have been, on the forefront of counterterrorism.
Mr Larry Kramer, the former dean of Stanford Law School, who heads the foundation, noted last Friday that, until now, "the policy debate has been impeded by gaps in trust - chasms, really - between academia, civil society, the private sector and the intelligence community" that have impeded the evolution of a "safe, open and resilient Internet".
Among the chief authors of the report is Mr Matthew Olsen, who was a director of the National Counterterrorism Centre under President Barack Obama and a general counsel of the NSA.
Two current senior officials of the NSA - Mr John DeLong, head of its commercial solutions centre, and Ms Anne Neuberger, the agency's chief risk officer - are described in the report as "core members" of the group, but did not sign the report because they could not act on behalf of the agency or the US government in endorsing its conclusions, government officials said.
"Encryption is a real problem, and the FBI and intelligence agencies are right to raise it," Mr Olsen said on Sunday.
But he noted that in their testimony officials had not described the other technological breaks that are falling their way, nor had they highlighted cases in which they were able to exploit mistakes made by terror and other suspects in applying encryption to their messages.
Mr Jonathan Zittrain, a professor of law and computer science at Harvard who convened the group, said in an interview that the goal was "to have a discussion among people with very different points of view" that would move "the state of the debate beyond its well-known bumper stickers. We managed to do that in part by thinking of a larger picture, specifically in the unexpected ways that surveillance might be attempted".
NEW YORK TIMES