America’s Public Libraries take on the NSA

Saturday, December 07, 2013
(photo: Baby-Sitter's Club)

With an infusion of new funding for advocacy purposes, an association representing public libraries has jumped into the debate over curbing the National Security Agency’s (NSA) domestic surveillance.


The American Library Association (ALA), a group not known as a lobbying powerhouse in Washington, received a $1 million grant last month from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to advocate more on behalf of its members.


And one of the first subjects the ALA is tackling is NSA reform, due to concerns that the agency’s meta-data collection will infringe on the freedom to read and conduct research.


“Libraries are all about meta-data,” Alan Inouye, director of the Office for Information Technology Policy at ALA, told The Hill. As a library user, “you need to have some freedom to learn about what you think is important without worrying about whether it ends up in some FBI file. We’re talking about the information patterns of people. If that’s not personal, I don’t know what is.”


America’s libraries have been vulnerable to government intrusion ever since the passing of the Patriot Act (pdf) in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks. The law’s controversial Section 215, which allows the government to access business records, can be used to compel libraries to release data pertaining to research done by library users.


In January 2002, the ALA came out forcefully against the threat to privacy as posed by the Patriot Act, drafting and releasing a resolution regarding the law’s infringement on the rights of library users.


Edward Snowden’s release of the secret NSA documents this year has shown that, during the decade since the ALA passed its privacy resolution, the government has greatly expanded its reach and its efforts to sweep up huge amounts of information on citizens around the globe, including Americans.


Lynne Bradley, director of ALA’s Office of Government Relations, characterized the NSA’s spying as having “almost ravenous hunger” for collecting information.


It is unknown whether any public libraries have been forced to share users’ data with the NSA—because these institutions are prohibited by the government from saying so.


“We don’t know what we don’t know,” Bradley told The Hill.


ALA is supporting legislation introduced by Representative James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wisconsin) that would curb the NSA’s domestic spying. It also would prevent the government from placing gag orders on libraries that receive NSA surveillance requests.


“We don’t want [library patrons] being surveilled because that will inhibit learning, and reading, and creativity,” Inouye said.

-Noel Brinkerhoff, Danny Biederman


To Learn More:

Libraries Fear 'Ravenous' NSA (by Kate Tummarello, The Hill)

ALA vs NSA: Reflecting on Libraries and Social Media / Backtalk (by Woody Evans, Library Journal)

ALA re: NSA – Gravely Concerned…But Not Surprised (Ferndale Public Library Observer)

Librarians Describe Life Under An FBI Gag Order (by Luke O’Brien, Wired)

Conservative Co-Author of Patriot Act Readies Bipartisan Bill to Curb NSA Overreach (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)


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