Reconciling Perspectives: New Report Reframes Encryption Debate

February 1, 2016

The Berklett Cybersecurity Project of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University is pleased to announce the publication of a new report entitled “Don’t Panic: Making Progress on the ‘Going Dark’ Debate.” The report examines the high-profile debate around government access to encryption, and offers a new perspective gleaned from the discussion, debate, and analyses of an exceptional and 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 Prof. Jonathan Zittrain, 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.”

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. “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 Matthew Olsen, 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.

About the Berklett Cybersecurity Project

The Berkman Center for Internet & Society’s Berklett Cybersecurity Project convenes a diverse group of security and policy experts from academia, civil society, and the U.S. intelligence community to explore and evaluate the roles and responsibilities of the U.S. government in promoting cybersecurity. This group is examining a wide range of topics including, among others, the ongoing encryption debate, public-private information sharing, and responsible disclosures of software vulnerabilities.

The project is led by Professor Jonathan Zittrain, former National Counterterrorism Center Director Matthew Olsen, and cryptographer and civil liberties author Bruce Schneier. The name “Berklett” is a portmanteau of “Berkman” and “Hewlett,” as in the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, which generously supports the effort. More information at

Last updated

March 3, 2016