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Spring/Summer 2015 Vol. 15 Number 1

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Bulk Collection of Signals Intelligence

Last year, President Obama issued Presidential Policy Directive 28, which called for an evaluation of U.S. signals intelligence practices -- specifically the collection of communications between people, and information about those communications, such as the time and length of a phone call. It had come to light that the U.S. government was collecting such data in bulk, including information about individuals who were not subjects of intelligence investigations, raising concerns about the trade-off between national security and civil liberties.

The directive instructed the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to produce a report that assessed the feasibility of creating software that would allow the intelligence community to more easily conducted targeted data collection rather than bulk collection. In turn, ODNI asked the Academies for input to assist in preparing its response to the president.

A key value of bulk data collection is having a record of past communications that could be useful in future investigations, an attribute that cannot fully be replicated by software, the Academies' report says. Curtailing bulk data collection would mean that some information is necessarily lost, but this doesn't imply that bulk data collection must continue. While the report doesn't recommend whether bulk data collection should continue, it did find that technological alternatives could improve targeted collection or control how collected data is used.

New approaches to targeted data collection could increase the relevance of current information to future investigations, for example by rapidly updating filtering criteria to include new targets as they are discovered. And as an alternative to curbing the bulk collection of data, automated controls could be applied to how data is used to help protect individuals' privacy. The report identified three key technical elements required to control the use of data: isolating the bulk data so that it can be accessed only in specific ways; restricting the types of queries that can be made against the stored data; and auditing the queries that have been made. How these controls work can be made public without revealing sensitive data, so outside inspectors can verify that the procedures adequately protect privacy.

Some of the necessary technologies to enhance targeted collection or improve automated controls require further research and development, and many could feasibly be deployed within the next five years. However, the report says that the ultimate decision to use any technology is a policy question that requires determining whether increased effectiveness and transparency are worth the cost in equipment, labor, and potential interference with the intelligence mission.

-- Lauren Rugani

Bulk Collection of Signals Intelligence: Technical Options. Committee on Responding to Section 5(d) of Presidential Policy Directive 28: The Feasibility of Software to Provide Alternatives to Bulk Signals Intelligence Collection, Computer Science and Telecommunications Board, Division on Engineering and Physical Sciences (2015, 124 pp.; ISBN 978-0-309-32520-2; available from National Academies Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $44.00 plus $5.00 shipping for single copies).

The committee was chaired by Robert F. Sproull, former director of Oracle's Sun Labs. The study was funded by the Office of the Director for National Intelligence.

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