The NSA Surveillance Dictionary

I meant to include this wry article in my previous post on surveillance, abuse of power, and abuse of language, but then I decided that it deserves its own post. Rather in the spirit of Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary, Philip Bump proposes that we bear in mind the NSA Surveillance Dictionary when trying to understand and write about surveillance. For example:

data (ˈdeɪtə): A lot of people unfamiliar with secrecy semantics use the term “data” to refer to a group of points of information. That is wrong.

Data is content. It is what is said in a communication. It is not information about the communication. That is metadata. Got it?

If not, please refer to the congressional testimony of Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. Asked by Senator Ron Wyden if the NSA “collect[s] any type of data at all” on Americans, Clapper responded no. Because, he said, he was thinking about the question only in terms of Wyden’s previous question, which dealt with how the NSA gathers emails and internet content on non-Americans. He wasn’t thinking about the metadata that the NSA collects on every phone call that takes place through every American phone provider — metadata which includes the phone numbers and length of the call. That isn’t data, it is metadata.

And therefore, by this definition, Clapper was hardly wrong at all.