The Hidden Virtues of Card Catalogs


Last month, when four Republican senators who had criticized the PATRIOT Act withdrew their opposition to the law's reauthorization, the White House concessions they said had allayed their civil liberties concerns seemed pretty lame. They seem even lamer now.

Consider the change that was supposed to shield library records from national security letters, administrative subpoenas that do not require judicial approval and that are supposed to be limited to credit, financial, and communication records. "The agreement clarifies current law to make clear that libraries functioning in their traditional role are not subject to National Security Letters," the four senators said. "These traditional services include making books available in digital format, and offering patrons access to the Internet." But according to a story in yesterday's New York Times, the final version of the law does not do what the senators promised:

The section of the new law that addresses "privacy protection for library patrons" states that library records are beyond the reach of national security letters so long as the library is not operating as an "electronic communication service." Elsewhere, that term is defined as "any service which provides to users thereof the ability to send or receive wire or electronic communications."

But much of what a modern library does courses through its computers. Patrons can research topics on the Web. They can even reserve books from home. "A national security letter can be used to get any library record that is maintained via an electronic communication service," Ms. Beeson said. "That definitely includes Internet access and e-mail records and can also include patron borrowing records."

The Times also notes that the FBI can still get library records (indeed "any tangible thing") via Section 215 orders approved by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court upon the FBI's assertion of "relevance."