Civil Liberties

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.