(CN) - There is no software-based alternative that can fully replace the mass collection of basic data from every telephone call made in the United States, but methods can be developed to build stronger privacy protections into the collection process, the National Research Council says in a new report.
The study was result of a presidential directive issued in January 2014, instructing the agency to evaluate the nation's signals intelligence practices.
As the name implies, signals intelligence is intelligence gathering by the interception of signals, whether they're created during communications by people or from electronic signals not directly used in communication.
President Obama directed the evaluation be undertaken in the wake of former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden's revelations of the government's enormous data-collection activities, and the public uproar that accompanied exposure of the program.
The president's order gave the agency one year to assess the feasibility of creating software that would allow the intelligence community to more easily conduct targeted information searches rather that bulk collection.
"From a technological standpoint, curtailing bulk data collection means analysts will be deprived of some information," said Robert F. Sproull, the former director of Oracle's Sub Labs who chaired the committee that carried out the study.
"It does not necessarily mean that current bulk collection must continue." he said. "A reduction in bulk collection can be partially mitigated by improving target collection, and technologies can improve oversight and transparency and help reduce the conflict between collection and privacy."
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.
But 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.
For the purpose of the study, the research committee comprised of tech industry experts defined "collection" as the process of extracting data from a source, filtering it according to some criteria, and storing the results.
If a significant portion of the collected data is not associated with current targets or subjects of interest in an investigation, it is considered bulk; otherwise, it is targeted.
A key value of bulk collection is its record of past signals intelligence that may be relevant to subsequent investigations. Improving the relevance of collected information to future investigations could also be achieved with new approaches to targeting, the report notes.
Rapidly updating filtering criteria to include new targets as they are discovered will help collect data that would otherwise be lost, and if done quickly enough and well enough, bulk information about past events may not be needed. However, targeted collection cannot substitute for bulk collection if past events were unique or if the delay in collecting the new information is too long, the report says.
The committee found that automated controls on the use of collected data can help to protect the privacy of people who are not subjects of investigation, and went on to describe the technical requirements needed to control and automate usage.
There included isolating bulk data so that it can be accessed only in specific ways; restricting the types of queries that can be made against stored data; and auditing the queries that have been done.
"Ultimately, the decision to deploy any given technology is a policy question that requires determining whether increased effectiveness and apparent transparency are worth the cost in equipment, labor, and potential interference with the intelligence mission," the committee said. " Such discussions were beyond the scope of this report."
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