NSA Domestic Spying: There is No Technological Replacement for Liberty

National Academy of Sciences report finds "no software-based technique can fully replace the bulk collection of signals intelligence."


NSA Spying

Yesterday, a committee convened by the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) published a report, Bulk Collection of Signals Intelligence: Technical Options, evaluating the bulk collection of information by U.S. spy agencies, most specifically the National Security Agency. Bulk collection is a euphemism for domestic spying on the telecommunications of all Americans. The NAS committee was specifically asked to consider "assessing the feasibility of creating software that would allow the intelligence community more easily to conduct targeted information acquisition rather than bulk collection."

The committee's conclusion as reported in the accompanying 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.

To be fair, the Office of Director of National Intelligence headed by noted perjuror James Clapper limited the NAS committee to the narrow question of whether or not there is a substitute for domestic spying, uh, bulk collection. From the press release:

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.

First, what damned effectiveness? As I noted earlier this month in my article, "Abolish the Intelligence-Industrial Complex":

In response to [whistleblower Edward] Snowden's revelations [about the vast scope of domestic spying], NSA director Keith Alexander essentially lied to Congress when he claimed that the NSA's spying had contributed to thwarting 54 terrorist plots.  In January, 2014, the New America Foundation think-tank issued a report that concluded that NSA domestic spying had had "no discernible impact on preventing acts of terrorism." It certainly had no discernible impact on thwarting the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013 or the would-be Christmas jetliner bomber in 2009.

Also in January, President Obama's own Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB) issued a report on the NSA's domestic spying program that damningly found, "We have not identified a single instance involving a threat to the United States in which the telephone records program made a concrete difference in the outcome of a counterterrorism investigation." The report added, "Moreover, we are aware of no instance in which the program directly contributed to the discovery of a previously unknown terrorist plot or the disruption of a terrorist attack."

Let's put aside for the moment the fact that NSA bulk collection is a massive violation of the Fourth Amendment rights of Americans. Instead let's answer the question that was not asked of the committee. Is the potential gain in privacy is worth the potential loss of intelligence? Yes.