As an academic librarian who remembers quite well those days when the Patriot Act was a newly enforced law, there was real angst in the library community about the implications it would have on maintaining the privacy of patron records. Within the academic community, while there was a fair amount of information exchange on responding to and preparing for this new era in national security, there was also a shared perception that our public library colleagues would bear the brunt of whatever challenges these new laws created. Now the burden may shift to academic librarians. A revival of student activism is combining with growing spy paranoia on campus to raise new worries for colleges and universities – and more specifically their police forces. National security experts are sounding an alarm portraying the campus as incubator for revolutionary radicals and terrorist organizations. The possibility that this new atmosphere of fear could extend itself into the academic library is an issue that should have librarians thinking and preparing for how they will respond to privacy threats.
Big Brother on Campus
Institutions of higher education should be bastions of free speech and intellectual freedom. More recently both external and internal police forces are making colleges and universities look more like Big Brother than defender of individual rights. In one highly publicized case, the New York City Police were accused of spying on Muslim student associations at twenty colleges, since 2006, in an effort to connect students to terrorist groups. At multiple institutions, campus police resources were targeted for monitoring Occupy Wall Street groups. Colleges certainly have the right to protect their property and keep campuses civil, but it’s shocking to learn of clandestine agreements with Homeland Security and the FBI to keep tabs on student groups. Equally unexpected is how some campus police forces are arming themselves to the teeth in ways that go way beyond pepper spray. One can only wonder what Armageddon campus police are preparing for that requires them to acquire water cannons, tasers, bean bag guns and assault rifles.
Hotbed for Spies
Another reason to anticipate increased monitoring on college campuses is the concern that American universities are catching up to corporations as a hotbed of spy activity. As the world grows flatter and more competitive foreign governments are aggressively seeking corporate secrets or high technology. We already know that piracy is rampant in both the software and entertainment industries. One American corporation that sells wind energy technology found that its Chinese customers were suddenly dropping their contracts for maintenance of the software that controls the turbines. Using sophisticated monitoring software, the company found that their customers had unlocked the protective code and figured out how to copy the software, a move that cost the company millions of dollars. The CIA and FBI see higher education as fertile breeding ground for future foreign spies because of the openness to international student populations, and the provision of access to sophisticated research and scientific technology. When universities accept students or invite scholars to campus, they have little information about these individuals’ background. That worries our security agencies, and there are reports of foreign students downloading other researchers’ private files or providing foreign agents with access to restricted technology. In the current international spy vs. spy environment, the rise of the homeland security campus should come as no surprise.
Spies in the Library
As the providers of access to scientific and technical information, the academic library is a potential target for spy hunters. It’s not inconceivable that a hostile foreign agent would seek to mine the vast content offered by research libraries for information to further terror activity. In a recent controversy, government agencies sought to restrict journals from publishing research findings that might be used to create global epidemics via disease warfare. Pay-for-access options could likely lead to any article available via an academic library, but those obtained through library accounts would be more difficult for government watchdogs to track. It’s within the realm of possibility that agents would expect academic librarians to cooperate to incorporate tracking technologies to enhance their ability to find out who is tapping into specific content – a move that academic librarians would no doubt vociferously oppose.
Our Patriot Act experience will remind us that federal agents with subpoenas or warrants are not so easily deterred. All librarians have an ethical commitment to protect the privacy of their community members, but resisting government efforts to tap our records for information could prove a futile endeavor.
It May Get Worse
The bad news is that Congress is currently considering several pieces of cybersecurity legislation, most of which would make the Patriot Act look downright citizen friendly. If enacted these laws would allow the government to collect data from our records without requiring warrants or subpoenas, and you can expect Internet Service Providers will be incentivized to cooperate. The American Library Association, for good reason, opposes every current piece of cybersecurity legislation. Rooting out terrorists, destructive foreign spies and corporate espionage are all valid reasons for having systems in place to protect our national security and global economic interests.
We must balance this with the need to protect community members’ right to privacy, ensure their constitutionally guaranteed freedoms are upheld and prevent our academic libraries from becoming hunting grounds for federal agents targeting protesters, computer savvy students or international guests. For all the benefits we garner from our powerful networks, cyberwarfare and cyberspying represent the dark side of our connected world. In order for academic librarians to respond appropriately, to defend our turf and core values and the freedom of our community members, we need to be aware of these threats and how our government plans to conduct war and espionage in cyberspace. If we fail to do that, we may have no defense once the trampling of our code of ethics is underway.