WASHINGTON No existing technology can fully replace collecting data in bulk to obtain electronic intelligence, but some methods could be developed to improve how information is gathered and used, the U.S. National Research Council said in a report on Thursday.
The report, sponsored by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, was in response to President Barack Obama's call last year for a review of potential software-based alternatives to the controversial program.
"There are no technical alternatives that can accomplish the same functions as bulk collection and serve as a complete substitute for it; there is no technological magic," the report said.
The program came to light following explosive revelations in 2013 by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden that the U.S. government was collecting and storing bulk telephone records of calls made to and from U.S. citizens.
NSA eavesdroppers collected only so-called "metadata" – the time, length and phone numbers of the calls – and not actual content.
Intelligence officials maintain that collecting telephone metadata in bulk is critical to U.S. counter-terrorism efforts.
However, a blue-ribbon panel set up by Obama following Snowden's revelations reported it could find no evidence that sweeping collection of the telephone metadata of Americans led to a single major counter-terrorism breakthrough.
The National Research Council report focused on the technology of all types of electronic communication and not just domestic telephone metadata.
"A choice to eliminate all forms of bulk collection would have costs in intelligence capabilities," Council researchers, who came from universities across the country and top technology companies such as Google Inc (GOOGL.O) and IBM Corp (IBM.N), said in the report.
They did say, however, that it might be possible in some cases to develop techniques that improve targeting and provide a viable substitute for bulk collection.
The report also said some methods could be developed to help allay privacy and civil liberties concerns.
It suggested approaches such as automated systems for isolating data, restricting queries relating to the information and auditing its use.
(Reporting by Alina Selyukh, Mark Hosenball and Warren Strobel; Editing by Bill Trott and Andre Grenon)