Indeed, ever since Snowden provided reporters with a trove of top secret documents, we’ve been subjected to all sorts of NSA word games. And the word “collect” has a very special definition, according to the Department of Defense (DoD). A 1982 procedures manual (pdf; page 15) says: “information shall be considered as ‘collected’ only when it has been received for use by an employee of a DoD intelligence component in the course of his official duties.” And “data acquired by electronic means is ‘collected’ only when it has been processed into intelligible form.”
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper likened the NSA’s accumulation of data to a library. All those books are stored on the shelves, but very few are actually read. “So the task for us in the interest of preserving security and preserving civil liberties and privacy,” says Clapper, “is to be as precise as we possibly can be when we go in that library and look for the books that we need to open up and actually read.” Only when an individual book is read does it count as “collection,” in government parlance.
So, think of that friend of yours who has thousands of books in his house. According to the NSA, he’s not actually “collecting” books. He’s doing something else with them, and the only books he can claim to have “collected” are the ones he’s actually read.
This is why Clapper claims — to this day — that he didn’t lie in a Senate hearing when he replied “no” to this question: “Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?”
If the NSA collects — I’m using the everyday definition of the word here — all of the contents of everyone’s e-mail, it doesn’t count it as being collected in NSA terms until someone reads it. And if it collects — I’m sorry, but that’s really the correct word — everyone’s phone records or location information and stores it in an enormous database, that doesn’t count as being collected — NSA definition — until someone looks at it. If the agency uses computers to search those emails for keywords, or correlates that location information for relationships between people, it doesn’t count as collection, either. Only when those computers spit out a particular person has the data — in NSA terms — actually been collected.
[How broken is a system that allows people to hide behind lies of omission rather than demanding common use, or explain their definition. Sad.]