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Taking Liberties

Whose noses are in your library books?


Published December 18, 2002 at 6:45 p.m.

Maybe you've seen the TV spot. A young man approaches the reference desk of a public library and asks the librarian for help finding some books. The librarian informs him that those books are no longer available.

"May I have your name, please?" she asks. Suddenly, two men in dark suits approach the young man and grab him by the arms. As they lead him away he asks, "What did I do?" The tagline on this public service announcement -- unveiled July 4 as part of the Ad Council's "Campaign for Freedom" -- reads, "What if America wasn't America?"

It's a question librarians in Vermont and around the country have been asking themselves since the passage last year of the USA Patriot Act, a sweeping piece of legislation that gives the federal government broad new powers to, among other things, snoop into library patrons' reading and computer habits without their knowledge or approval. Librarians, who have long seen themselves as defenders of the fundamental right to read and gather information without government intrusion or interference, are now wrestling with ways to comply with the new law while still upholding the basic tenets of the Constitution.

"The reason why this resonates is because for a long time people have considered libraries really safe places to learn about whatever you're interested in without being afraid someone is going to judge you for it," says Trina Magi, a reference librarian at the University of Vermont's Bailey/Howe Library and past president of the Vermont Library Association. "I think [the Patriot Act] makes people uncomfortable. It certainly makes librarians uncomfortable."

Even before the Patriot Act, libraries traditionally kept a tight grip on their users' records, retaining only the personal data necessary for operating the library. "In practice, we try as much as possible to minimize the kind of personal information that can be called up," says Mara Saule, dean of University Libraries and Information Technology at UVM. "Our policy has always been that unless a judge orders it, we would not give out that information."

Like many librarians, Saule is deeply troubled by this federal law, which underwent little congressional debate or revision and no public hearings. "It's the whole principle of the Patriot Act which is problem-atic," she says. "It hits to the fundamental values not just of libraries but of education and democracy generally in terms of privacy, censorship and civil liberties."

Vermont law grants strong privacy protections of library-user records similar to those afforded to medical records, educational test scores, tax returns, proprietary trade secrets and the like. But in this case, federal law trumps state law. That means that in today's neo-McCarthyist climate, if the FBI or other law-enforcement agents want to check out what you're checking out, there's not much you can do about it.

Reportedly, no agents of the Thought Police have gone rifling through the user records of Burlington's Fletcher Free Library or UVM libraries hunting for suspects in the "war on terrorism" -- not that their librarians could tell us even if they had. The USA Patriot Act puts library staffs under a permanent gag order prohibiting them from informing library users, or anyone else, that their records have been investigated. This makes it extremely difficult to know just how widespread the practice has become.

Nevertheless, a survey conducted last January by the Library Research Center at the University of Illinois hints at the chilling effect the Patriot Act was having just three months after its passage. In a survey of 1028 libraries nationwide, one in five said their staff members had changed their attitude toward, or treatment of, library patrons, and at least half of those had begun taking notice of what patrons were checking out. Four percent reported that law-enforcement agents had come in requesting information on pa-trons, or that the library had reported patrons' records to outside authorities.

"We do know that law-enforcement agents are visiting libraries and looking for information, and that investigations are going on," says Deborah Caldwell-Stone, deputy director of the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom. The most flagrant example occurred in the Chicago suburb of Bridgeview, where in the aftermath of 9/11, FBI agents visited a public library looking for the records of individuals running Islamic charities in the area.

The repercussions of such snooping around? Library boards are feeling the need to reexamine their records-retention policies and to look more closely at their computer software to find out exactly what personal data are being stored, and where, says Caldwell-Stone. Many libraries now require that patrons use passwords to access databases, which can be stored on servers located off the library's premises, she explains. Other libraries use back-up software that may inadvertently retain personal-lending data. Theoretically, all that data can be accessed without the library, or the user, even knowing it, creating the potential for widespread abuse.

"It has made it much simpler for federal government agents to collect information and do it in a way that's more 'data mining' than targeting of an individual, looking for patterns of information movement rather than just looking at an individual's activities," says Caldwell-Stone. "They no longer have to allege that criminal activity has actually taken place or [is] threatening to take place. They just have to say that they need this information for an ongoing investigation."

Librarians at UVM and Fletcher Free Library say their boards only recently began revisiting their policies to address Patriot Act concerns. For example, Amber Collins, co-director of Fletcher Free Library, says they no longer require Internet users to sign up for computers, fearing such data might later be used to reconstruct who was visiting what Web sites and when.

Maintaining user privacy is not only about high-tech fixes. Frontline library staffs also need to be trained to respond if and when the police ask to see their records, since federal law doesn't require investigators to wait around for a library to consult its legal counsel. "Many times law-enforcement agents will deliberately target the library clerk, who they assume doesn't know better, and try to persuade or intimidate them into turning over information they're not entitled to," Caldwell-Stone says. She recommends libraries do a "privacy audit" to find out where potential leaks of personal information might occur.

Such defensive measures are not as paranoid as they sound. Back in the 1980s it was revealed that for years the FBI had operated the Library Awareness Program, in which agents would approach library clerks and persuade them to turn over information on research being done by students from Eastern Bloc nations, or those suspected of being sympathetic to Soviet interests. Although ALA representatives met with William Webster, then director of the Central Intelligence Agency, requesting that the program be dropped, Caldwell-Stone admits, "We don't know what ever happened to it."

Since passage of the USA Patriot Act, at least 18 towns, counties and cities -- including Burlington -- have passed so-called "Civil Liberties Safety Zone" resolutions voicing their opposition to provisions that threaten civil liberties, run contrary to state and federal privacy protections and undermine the Constitution. Similar resolutions are in the works in 50 other cities in 24 states. And the Vermont Library Association, like many such groups around the country, has penned a letter to its state's congressional delegation requesting that provisions of the Patriot Act that violate library-user privacy be revoked.

Thus far, no librarians have publicly announced their willingness to violate the Patriot Act -- a move that could mean going to jail. But it may be just a matter of time before a librarian gets booked for defending your right to read a book.

Speaking of Civil Liberties



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