Increasingly, we are being watched not by people, but by algorithms. Amazon and Netflix track the books we buy and the movies we stream to suggest other books and movies based on our habits, while Google and Facebook watch what we do and what we say to show us advertisements based on our behavior. Smartphone navigation apps watch us as we drive and the US National Security Agency (NSA), of course, monitors our telephone calls, e-mails and locations, then uses that information to try to identify terrorists.
Documents provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden and revealed by the Guardian show that, with help from the NSA, the British Government Communications Headquarters monitoring agency has been collecting millions of Webcam images from innocent Yahoo users (“UK agency stored webcam images from Yahoo users,” March 1, page 1) and that speaks to a key distinction in the age of algorithmic surveillance.
Ever since Snowden provided reporters with a trove of top-secret documents, we have been subjected to all sorts of NSA word games. The word “collect” has a very special definition, according to the US Department of Defense (DOD). A 1982 procedures manual 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 that “data acquired by electronic means is ‘collected’ only when it has been processed into intelligible form.”
US 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 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,” Clapper said.
Only when an individual book is read does it count as “collection.”
So, think of that friend of yours who has thousands of books in his house. According to the NSA, he is not actually “collecting” books and the only books he can claim to have “collected” are the ones he has read. This is why Clapper to this day claims that he did not lie in a US 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, according to the everyday definition of the word, the NSA collects all the contents of everyone’s e-mail, phone records or location information and stores it in an enormous database, that does not count as being collected by the agency’s definition until someone looks at it. If the agency uses computers to search those e-mails for keywords, or correlates that location information for relationships between people, it does not see that as collection either. Only when those computers spit out a particular person has the data — in NSA terms — been collected.
This was Google’s defense, too, about its context-sensitive advertising when Gmail was introduced. Google’s computers examine each individual e-mail and insert an advertisement nearby that is related to its contents. However, no person at Google reads any Gmail messages; only a computer does.
In the words of one Google executive: “Worrying about a computer reading your e-mail is like worrying about your dog seeing you naked.”