A growing number of Americans are concerned about privacy following the National Security Agency whistle-blower Edward Snowden’s leaks over the summer — but it isn’t just individuals who are concerned. America’s libraries are urging lawmakers to produce legislation to curb the NSA’s spying authority in an effort to protect the freedom of citizens to read and research without concern for government scrutiny.
Government spying on library patrons is nothing new. In 2001, the American Library Association expressed vocal opposition to the passage of the Patriot Act, fearing that the government would use individual library activity logs to profile Americans. The anti-terror law indeed gave the FBI the ability to force libraries to hand over user data.
With Snowden’s revelations, the ALA renewed its efforts to curtail government spying on library patrons.
“The library community welcomes a renewed public debate on how to balance the need to fight terrorism and the need to protect personal privacy and civil liberties,” ALA President Maureen Sullivan said in June. “Millions of innocent customers, at least Verizon’s, have had their personal phone records released to the government without their knowledge and without allegations of specific facts supporting the relevance of their records to a federal terrorism investigation. We must demand more accountability and transparency in all of these surveillance issues. Our nation’s libraries are a tremendous information resource for those who want to better understand the issues and a place to begin debates about these issues.”
ALA director of government relations Lynne Bradley recently noted that the NSA’s practices go far beyond the privacy abuses green-lighted by the Patriot Act, revealing an “almost ravenous hunger” for information on Americans.
Especially appalling to the ALA are reports of heavy focus on collecting “metadata” because, as the organization’s director of the Office for Information Technology Policy Alan Inouye told The Hill, “[L]libraries are all about metadata.”
In June, the ALA called on the Senate to make legislative efforts to strengthen privacy protections for library patrons, including the following:
A requirement that information shared with the government as part of a cybersecurity information sharing program be directed only to civilian agencies – recent disclosures about the NSA’s misuse of the Patriot Act and the FISA Amendments Act to justify broad and intrusive surveillance programs make it clear that the NSA should not be the direct recipient of private sector cybersecurity information and that strong protections must be built into the law;
Strict limits to prevent information collected under cybersecurity programs to be used for general criminal prosecutions or national security purposes unrelated to cybersecurity;
A requirement that companies make reasonable efforts to remove personally identifiable information that is irrelevant to cyber threats before they share threat information;
Robust oversight and accountability provisions such as independent audits and reports
After receiving a $1 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to increase its lobbying presence in Washington, ALA representatives say that the organization is heavily supporting Representative James Sensenbrenner’s (R-Wis.) anti-NSA legislation known as the USA Freedom Act. The bill, which already has the support of a number of privacy advocates, would curb much of the NSA’s power and lift the gag order that comes with information requests from the agency.
“We don’t want [library patrons] being surveilled because that will inhibit learning, and reading, and creativity,” Inouye told The Hill.