Jan 15 6:30 PM

Government data-collection report favors government data collection

The NSA loves it some metadata ... even at night.
Trevor Paglen

When you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

And, when you’re a surveillance state intent on bulk collecting every bit of available data, nothing does the job quite like bulk collection.

Such is the determination of a new report from the National Research Council (NRC), the arm of the National Academies tasked with, yes, that’s right, data collection. (But, of the overt kind.)

The report [PDF] was sponsored by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), the extra layer of spymaster bureaucracy added in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. It is nominally in response to last year’s big ask from President Barack Obama to examine alternatives to the U.S. government’s controversial, intrusive data collection programs, some of which were exposed by leaks from Edward Snowden.

But there’s a more, shall we say, forward-looking context for the NRC findings.

Some of the provisions that provided the legal justification for the government’s bulk data collection — like Secs. 206 and 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act — will expire on June 1. There was an attempt last year to get them extended until 2017 in Sen. Pat Leahy’s USA FREEDOM Act, but the bill could not overcome the skepticism of some intelligence watchdogs and the party-line opposition of Republicans.

So, the fight has moved to the new, GOP-dominated Congress, with parts of the Obama administration and pretty much all of the Intelligence community hoping they can gather enough support from both parties to counter objections from privacy advocates on the left and right. And fans of massive intelligence sweeps are, um, bulking up for the fight.

Continued focus on cybersecurity in the wake of the hacks of private companies like Sony and JPMorgan Chase is one way to control the climate for the coming debate, despite the fact that those data breeches had nothing to do with terrorism or government security. Pointing to last week’s shootings in Paris is another, even though the vast amounts of information already collected on each of the gunmen did nothing to prevent the attacks.

Then there is this NRC study.

"A choice to eliminate all forms of bulk collection would have costs in intelligence capabilities," Council researchers, who were drawn from universities and the tech sector, said in the report.

But what capabilities would those be? The Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies, President Obama’s “blue-ribbon” panel set up to examine the bulk collection programs in the wake of the Snowden revelations, determined that “telephony metadata” did not contribute to disrupting any terrorist activity, and further, there was nothing obtained that couldn’t have been procured through a more conventional, court-ordered search.

Oh, and not for nothing, but the bulk collection programs were ruled to violate the 4th Amendment of the Constitution by U.S. District Judge Richard Leon, who called the program “almost Orwellian” in his ruling. (Appeals on this case are still moving through the courts.)

But, if you are an intelligence agency in love with bulk data collection, never mind the efficacy or constitutionality — nothing succeeds like failure.

Yes, bulk data collection does collect a bunch of data, but, really, so what? Unless the NRC asks what tools could provide useful information and uphold constitutional values, they and their report just look dumb — dumber than a bag of hammers.

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