The National Academy of Sciences has released Bulk Collection of Signals Intelligence: Technical Options, a report on technical solutions to the problem of bulk collection. The report, which was made public on January 15, was the result of Barack Obama's Presidential Policy Directive 28 (PPD 28). PPD 28 mandated an assessment of “the feasibility of creating software that would allow the Intelligence Community more easily to conduct targeted information acquisition rather than bulk collection.”

PPD 28 asked for a limited technical assessment. And that’s the substance of the report. Some analyses of the report from the media seem to misunderstand this, emphasizing that the report finds “no effective alternative to the government’s ‘bulk collection.’” But the report makes it clear that it does not address “policy questions and tried to avoid making judgments about them." In fact, as the report aptly (and repeatedly) points out:

Other groups, such as the President's Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies and the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (in its Section 215 report) have said that bulk collection of telephone metadata is not justified. These were policy and legal judgments that are not in conflict with the committee's conclusion that there is no software technique that will fully substitute for bulk collection; there is no technological magic. 

That’s right. There’s no software magic that can recreate the past in the same way that bulk collection of the phone records of millions of innocent people can. That’s all the report (unsurprisingly) concludes about bulk collection.

While our current lack of a software time-machine may be a disappointment, it does not mean there is no alternative to bulk collection. Alternatives abound. Indeed, in the context of Section 215 and the bulk collection of Americans’ phone records, after just six months of public debate and deliberation, an alternative was proposed that would ensure that the intelligence community has the “necessary and appropriate tools to help keep us safe,” while “end[ing] the dragnet collection of phone records under Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act.”

But the government hasn’t made it easy to have an honest debate about bulk surveillance, since as the report notes, Very little has been made public about actual cases where U.S. SIGINT has contributed to counterterrorism…The selection of the cases that were made public, the details of the accounts, and their significance have all been controversial.” Compounding these shortcomings, officials have made trumped-up claims about the effectiveness of bulk collection—claims that have been criticized by the President’s Review Board and the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, among others. It’s impossible to have an honest debate without access to facts.

Ultimately, as the report points out “whether the gain in privacy is worth the loss [of bulk collection] is a policy question that the committee does not address”—and it’s one we might not even need to answer. We’re confident that alternatives to bulk collection exist—alternatives that can be created through honest and full public debate, alternatives that preserve important national security functions without compromising the privacy of millions.

So there may be no technological magic bullet. And there may not even be a political magic bullet. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t solutions.

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