NSA Review Group May Defend Data Collection

White House advisory group reportedly defends digital spying.

Director of the National Security Agency Gen. Keith Alexander, Deputy Attorney General James Cole, and general counsel of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence Robert Litt testify during a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Dec. 11, 2013, in Washington, D.C.

A report due on Dec. 15 from the White House advisory group reviewing the National Security Agency may urge the agency to continue its phone and Internet data collection, while its recommendation for a civilian head of intelligence gathering will likely not come to pass.

[READ: President Obama Proposing Self-Restraint on NSA]

Officials with knowledge of the report drafted by the Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technology spoke with The Wall Street Journal Thursday, explaining that the advisers will likely recommend for the data collection to continue with phone and Internet companies holding the data instead of the NSA. Recommendations by the review group will also include stricter standards for allowing NSA permission to search digital data and for the agency to have civilian, instead of military, leadership, The Wall Street Journal reported.

Gen. Keith Alexander, the NSA's director, retires in the spring, but an announcement from the White House indicates his successor at the agency will be a military official because the post will be combined with leadership of Cyber Command, which is a part of the Department of Defense.

"Following a thorough interagency review, the administration has decided that keeping the positions of NSA director and Cyber Command commander together as one, dual-hatted position is the most effective approach to accomplishing both agencies' missions," according to a statement from Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for the White House.

In August, Obama commissioned the review group of legal and technology experts to "assess whether, in light of advancement in communications technologies," national security surveillance by U.S. intelligence agencies fails to maintain the public trust. The White House will decide when to make the report public before using it to inform its own policy recommendations on changing the NSA this month.

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Internet privacy advocates at the New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute are reserving judgment until the official recommendations are released, but Kevin Bankston, policy director of the think tank, said he was worried about news reports the group would allow the NSA's data collection to continue.

"Mandating that phone companies or a third party retain years' worth of phone data just in case the government wants to look at it is not an 'overhaul' of or an 'end' to the NSA's bulk collection program, as some reports have described it," Bankston said. "It's just bulk collection by proxy."

Tech companies have expressed concern that reports about data collection by the NSA might make them seem vulnerable to spying and could lose the trust and business of individuals and corporate consumers. Eight tech companies including Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and LinkedIn formed an advocacy campaign Monday entitled "Reform Government Surveillance," calling for tighter controls on how the government collects personal information.

Critics of bulk data collection include Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy , D-Vt., who each introduced the Freedom Act in the House and Senate to end bulk collection of data.

Leahy chaired a hearing of his committee Wednesday to discuss the bill, during which he said "the legal justification of the Internet metadata collection is troubling" because it gives the NSA broad authority in the name of national security. The Freedom Act includes provisions to restrict intelligence gathering to data directly relevant to terrorism investigations.

"The American people have been told that all of their phone records are relevant to counterterrorism investigation," Leahy said. "Now they are told their metadata is also relevant and apparently fair game for the NSA to collect."

[MORE: NSA Can Map Your Movements Using Cell Data]

Even if the bill becomes law the NSA might still be able to use that legal authority of what qualifies as "relevant" to convince the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to allow it to continue broad data monitoring, Deputy Attorney General James Cole said during Wednesday's hearing.

Corrected on : Corrected 12/16/13: This story has been changed to correctly identify a director at the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute.