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U.S. Government Report Says There Is No Alternative To Bulk Data Collection

Tuesday, February 17th, 2015

If the report of an academic advisory panel is to be believed, there is currently no alternative available to bulk data collection. The panel, which was led by James Clapper (director of National Intelligence) and was convened based on a request from President Obama; comprised of computer science experts from National Academy of Sciences. The panel was formed in response to the uproar caused by Edwards Snowden’s leaks and its job was to examine NSA’s bulk data collection practices and suggest if any alternative was available. As per the panel, there is no “technological magic” available which can replace bulk data collection and achieve the nation security objectives at the same time.

Although the panel did not approve or disapprove of NSA’s collection of phone records, emails and information about online sessions, it did reject the notion that technology alone could achieve what months of debates over surveillance couldn’t. The panel examined several technical alternatives to bulk data collection and came to the conclusion that none of them were sufficient to identify potential surveillance targets from the already available information. As per the panel, eliminating all types of bulk data collection is going to have a negative impact on the capabilities of the intelligence agencies.

While the panel did not suggest a viable alternative to bulk data collection, it did suggest that such practices could be replaced by better selection of targets. To achieve that, the panel recommended storing vast amounts of isolated data and firing restricted queries against such databases. This practice would allow the intelligence agencies to do their job as well as alleviate the privacy concerns of the masses at the same time.

The panel also said that the value of collected data comes from the context of the investigation and not from the technique that was used to collect the data. So while the bulk data collection practices may provide additional data for analysis, it may not help in identifying threat information if the search queries were not precise enough. The panel also suggested having extra automated safeguards that could restrict access to the collected data. The panel suggested that it is possible to isolate collected data and restrict the types of queries which the analysts could fire against them and this type information can definitely be made public without compromising national security.

As per Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, NSA’s bulk data collection practices were not effective in preventing any terrorist attack and needed to be shut down. However, the Board also found that NSA gained valuable intelligence by collecting data about international calls made by Americans and by snooping on foreigners’ communications. The academic panel also suggested that surveillance may increase in the future and may even cover Internet of Things enabled devices. Since the bill to reform NSA’s bulk data collection practices was shot down by the Congress, Americans have no option but get used to surveillance in their day to day lives.

February 17, 2015

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