Intel agencies will target newer, encryption-free tech for surveillance programs: Harvard report

IoT devices and cloud-based services represent the next frontier for digital surveillance, claims a new report.
IoT devices and cloud-based services represent the next frontier for digital surveillance, claims a new report.

A report today from Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet and Society tosses some cold water on the hotly contested debate over encryption vs. security, asserting that even if pro-encryption privacy advocates prevail, there are newly emerging avenues for intelligence agencies to conduct surreptitious digital surveillance.

The report, “Don't Panic. Making Progress on the Going Dark Debate,” predicted that in lieu of backdoors to encrypted messaging apps, law enforcement will increasingly turn to less fortified vectors to conduct offensive online investigations, including Internet of Things (IoT) devices, cloud-based services and apps whose business models rely heavily on customer data collection.

Reflecting the input of security experts across academia, civil society and the intelligence community, the report suggests that IoT devices, particularly those enhanced with networked sensors, cameras and microphones, could serve as especially powerful surveillance tools.

“These are prime mechanisms for surveillance: alternative vectors for information-gathering that could more than fill many of the gaps left behind by sources that have gone dark—so much so that they raise troubling questions about how exposed to eavesdropping the general public is poised to become,” the report cautions. For instance, smart TV manufacturers could potentially be ordered to let federal investigators eavesdrop on their customers' conversations via mechanisms that normally enable voice-based commands.

The report also notes that in some cases, “Market forces and commercial interests will likely limit the circumstances in which companies will offer encryption that obscures user data from the companies themselves.” For example, online service providers whose advertising models necessitate ample customer data collection will not be inclined to offer encryption services; therefore, their data would remain visible to investigators. Same goes for cloud-based services, as end-to-end encryption is currently impractical for any cloud-based features that require access to plaintext data, such as full text search.

The report also notes that metadata—still an important investigative tool—remains unencrypted and is likely to remain so in the future.

Paul Ferguson, threat research advisor at Trend Micro, told SCMagazine.com that he largely agreedwith the report's premise. “The technology behind a lot of new and emerging services are not built around privacy or security, so it leaves a lot of wiggle room for an adversary to get access to sensitive information, whether that is browsing history, cell phone call detail records, ISP logs, etc.,” said Ferguson. In this instance, the adversary would be a domestic intelligence agency, though it could equally refer to cybercriminals or nation-state actors.

Merritt Maxim, senior analyst at Forrester Research, was less convinced that IoT devices and networked sensors currently constitute a viable channel for digital surveillance. “It's a possibility, but the [IoT] market is still emerging. There are no standards for exchanging or sharing data,” said Maxim. “As the market matures, and interfaces and data exchange become more standardized, it might be easier to gather data from sensors.”

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