April 25, 2018

Freedom and Privacy: Patriot Act and Privacy Concerns

By Norman Oder

Despite the presence of an FBI lawyer who expressed sensitivity to civil libertarian concerns, several attendees at a discussion of the USA Patriot Act—which significantly expands governmental investigatory powers—expressed skepticism that the new powers wouldn’t be abused.

Indeed, Government Printing Office (GPO) Supervisor of Documents Francis Buckley recounted how, after the GPO in October ordered libraries to destroy a water resources guide CD-ROM (at the request of the U.S. Geological Survey), FBI agents visited five libraries in Arkansas asking if the libraries had complied. However, the FBI hadn’t called the GPO first to learn that only two libraries in the state had received the CD-ROM. “What is happening here?,” he asked.

Michael Woods, chief of the FBI’s 17-lawyer national security law unit, said he hadn’t known of the incident. “I will look into this,” he said. During his presentation and in response to questions, Woods emphasized that oversight of t
he FBI had increased significantly in the past 30 years.

Unnecessary Powers

Woods defended the new powers, contrasting a terrorism investigation to a criminal investigation. He said that FBI interest in libraries would primarily be in tracking Internet access, as terrorists have shown they know how to use anonymous e-mail accounts. “It’s part of their trade-craft,” he said.

Kate Martin, director of a watchdog group the Center for National Security Studies (CNSS), appeared at both the Patriot Act forum and an ALA Washington Office update. She observed that Congress had no time to consider the bill carefully. “I am not convinced that any of the changes are necessary or will make a difference in the terrorism investigation,” she said.

ALA released a set of guidelines for libraries, which can be found at the www.ala.org/washoff/patriot.html. The general guidelines were echo
ed by Gary Strong, director of the Queens Borough Public Library (QBPL), NY. He explained that all staffers are instructed to refer law enforcement requests to the library’s general counsel. If libraries don’t have a local counsel, they must identify someone who can provide advice. (At a meeting of the Intellectual Freedom Committee [IFC] it was pointed out that the Freedom To Read Foundation [FTRF] can provide such lawyers.)

Strong advised libraries to “know your policies” and not, for example, to retain copies of personally identifiable information that is typically removed. “Most importantly, check your personal emotions at the door,” he said.

One librarian said he found it troubling that librarians were asked to restrict access to the GPO documents, which he described as “legal, open, nonsecurity information.” Martin, the FBI critic, acknowledged that the issue is complex. Given that there are “cookbooks for anthrax” in the public domain, she said, “it’s not such an easy problem” to

Privacy Resolution

As part of a Resolution Reaffirming the Principles of Intellectual Freedom in the Aftermath of Terrorist Attacks (see Council & Exec Board ), ALA Council stated it “[e]ncourages libraries and their staff to protect the privacy and confidentiality of the people’s lawful use of the library, its equipment, and its resources.”

Still, an IFC hearing on a draft version of “Privacy: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights” drew broad but not uncritical support. The draft asserts strong protection for library users and librarians’ responsibility to protect confidentiality.

Specifics To Come

Because the document is general, the committee plans to issue a more detailed guide to address specific situations. Some attendees suggested that the guidan
ce acknowledge that librarians protect privacy within applicable laws. Others suggested that the document also acknowledge patrons’ responsibility to protect their own privacy; the privacy rights of youth; the appropriateness of the “tap on the shoulder” to monitor Internet use; and access of vendors to personal information. It was also pointed out that ALA should be more explicit in its privacy policies.

The committee began work on the interpretation well before the terrorist attacks, and IFC Chair Margo Crist said the group wanted a document “not primarily focused on [September 11].” Still, at the separate Patriot Act discussion, librarians were reminded of the importance of privacy. CNSS’s Martin contended that privacy protection has grown more important as governmental capacity to track data increases. The law does not recognize the right to read or access information anonymously, she added.

A new draft of the privacy document will be issued in the spring; it is expected to be brough
t before Council at the annual conference in Atlanta.