National Academies Report on Bulk Intelligence Collection
In January, the National Academies of Science (NAS) released a report on the bulk collection of signals intelligence. Basically, a year previously President Obama tasked the Director of National Intelligence with assessing “the feasibility of creating software that would allow the Intelligence Community more easily to conduct target information acquisition rather than bulk collection.” The DNI asked the NAS to answer the question, and the result is this report.
The conclusion is about what you’d expect. From the NAS press release:
No software-based technique can fully replace the bulk collection of signals intelligence, but methods can be developed to more effectively conduct targeted collection and to control the usage of collected data, says a new report from the National Research Council. Automated systems for isolating collected data, restricting queries that can be made against those data, and auditing usage of the data can help to enforce privacy protections and allay some civil liberty concerns, the unclassified report says.
A key value of bulk collection is its record of past signals intelligence that may be relevant to subsequent investigations, the report notes. The committee was not asked to and did not consider whether the loss of effectiveness from reducing bulk collection would be too great, or whether the potential gain in privacy from adopting an alternative collection method is worth the potential loss of intelligence information. It did observe that other sources of information—for example, data held by third parties such as communications providers—might provide a partial substitute for bulk collection in some circumstances.
Right. The singular value of spying on everyone and saving all the data is that you can go back in time and use individual pieces of that data. There’s nothing that can substitute for that.
And what the report committee didn’t look at is very important. Here’s Herb Lin, cyber policy and security researcher and a staffer on this report:
…perhaps the most important point of the report is what it does not say. It concludes that giving up bulk surveillance entirely will entail some costs to national security, but it does not say that we should keep or abandon bulk surveillance. National security is an important national priority and so are civil liberties. We don’t do EVERYTHING we could do for national security—we accept some national security risks. And we don’t do everything we could do for civil liberties—we accept some reductions in civil liberties. Where, when, and under what circumstances we accept either—that’s the most important policy choice that the American people can make.
Just because something can be done does not mean that 1) it is effective, or 2) it should be done. There’s a lot of evidence that bulk collection is not valuable.