FBI

Librarians Mount Defense Against Government Surveillance

|

Wikimedia Commons

Unlike the fickle winds of public opinion, the American Library Association (ALA) has maintained its long-standing principled opposition to government snooping. The Washington Post reports that librarians have been "among the loudest voices urging freedom of information and privacy protections" since Edward Snowden's leaks:

"As technology has changed and we've moved from the card catalogue and paper records to electronic records, we are always looking to destroy the record as soon we can," Emily Sheketoff [of the ALA] said. "When you return a book, the record is destroyed so that when the government comes we can say that we legitimately only know what you have out at the time."

Some librarians recognize this doesn't go far enough, particularly since many people use libraries mainly for Internet access:

In Massachusetts, the local branch of the American Civil Liberties Union has partnered with some librarians to deploy services like anonymous browsing tool Tor that can shield patrons' activity from electronic snooping.

Librarians have long been hostile to prying government eyes. In 1972, Bucknell University librarian Zoia Horn was arrested after refusing to hand over the patron information of anti-war protestors. At the end of the Cold War, the FBI acquiesced to librarian outrage in New York City and limited its Library Awareness Program, which sought to enlist librarians in uncovering Soviet spies.

The ALA was also at the forefront protesting the PATRIOT Act's surveillance provisions:

Section 215 of the act…was called the "library provision." The implication was that the government could use it to get library records. By 2003, some libraries placed signs in their lobbies, warning patrons that the government could obtain their records under the bill. Hundreds of meetings were organized to discuss the privacy implications of the law at libraries around the country.

In our jaded post-Snowden world, it seems that librarians' almost Pynchonian paranoia was more than justified. But one can't help wonder if the ALA's efforts these days are all for naught, given the apparently limitless technical and legal capabilities of the National Security Administration—and the frustrating delays of reform:

"Now we know that it really didn't matter what they passed," Sheketoff said. "What they were sweeping up was everything, way beyond what anybody had ever envisioned."

Some, like George Christian, one of four Connecticut library officials unlucky enough to receive a national security letter in 2005 demanding patron data, are pessimistic about the future:

"We are obviously all in trouble," he said. "What happened to us seems like kindergarten compared to the revelations from Snowden."

The lack of Internet access on traditional bound books is starting to look like a feature and not a bug: although they're bulky and you can't tap a word for an interactive definition, former NSA chief Keith Alexander also can't look over your shoulder and lecherously follow your progress through Fifty Shades of Gray—and thanks to privacy laws already in place for physical books borrowed from libraries, hopefully he won't ever know about your embarrassing reading habits. 

NEXT: Biden's 'Un-Serious' Image Reinforced by Gaffe

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Some, like George Christian, one of four Connecticut library officials unlucky enough to receive a national security letter in 2005 demanding patron data, are pessimistic about the future…

    I remember this case. Why do I remember this case? Was it huge news?

  2. “Unlike the fickle winds of public opinion, the American Library Association (ALA) has maintained its long-standing principled opposition to government snooping.”

    Outside of Cuba, that is:

    http://www.cato.org/publicatio…..ssociation

  3. Isn’t it somewhat odd that these are government employees?

    Of course, I’ll take privacy advocates where I can get them, but these are ostensibly government buildings/services in the first place.

    1. 1. Local government, not federal.
      2. Libraries are routinely mugged by the “get rid of that book” folks.

      1. Sometimes I buy those books for a buck or less, so I guess that there is an upside.

  4. of course this would be in reason because they think anyone who doesn’t like the patriot act is a libertarian and hates Obama. Well yeah maybe they don’t like it but it doesn’t translate to he who dies with the most toys wins, which is basically the libertarian so called philosophy boiled down to what it means in reality. sorry i don’t think all librarians are going to be voting libertarian in the near future. maybe you just think they can’t spell, but my mom was a librarian and so i have news for you.. they can spell.

    But I will give you an a for effort. Nice try. thank you drive thru.

    1. WTF?

  5. The ALA also supports a vast expansion of federal authority over the Internet. Because freedom. They’re not particularly bright.

  6. The ALA is irrevelant. But yay for them for not wanting to rat out the next Ramsey Yousef or the guy masturbating in public while peeping bangbros.com on the public internet terminal in front of all the kiddies coming out of librarian story time.

    And then they wonder why no one but the homeless and the cheap porn addicts want to walk through the turnstiles. “Oh, the city/county/state is cutting our funding due to low use, how can we lure the suburban voters into the library?” Derp.

  7. This article reminds me … I’ve had a book checked out since 1989.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.