February 17, 2018

Survey: Librarians Divided Over Post-9/11 Privacy Issues

By Norman Oder

Split revealed over voluntary compliance with law enforcement requests; number of terrorism inquiries still unclear

A new survey (www.lis.uiuc.edu/gslis/research/civil_liberties.html) by the Library Research Center (LRC) at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, concludes that, a year after the September 11 terrorist attacks, the nation’s public librarians are sharply divided over how to protect patron privacy. For example, those responding split almost evenly on whether they had complied with requests for voluntary cooperation with law enforcement.

The survey was mailed in October to directors of 1,505 of the 5,094 U.S. public libraries, with a more than 60 percent response rate. Fewer than ten percent have adopted or changed policies in the face of the passage of the USA PATRIOT Act. Among those changes are requiring ID from patrons to use the Internet, monitoring what patrons see, or installing software that erases the cache/history of web sites visited. Larger libraries – where anonymity is more prevalent – were more likely to have adjusted their policies.

Only 1.3 percent have voluntarily withdrawn materials that might be used to assist terrorists. Still, 4.1 percent reported that staff members had voluntarily given patron records and/or reported behaviors to outside authorities in relation to terrorism or suspected terrorist activities, and 8.3 percent said that patrons had reported concerns about other patrons because of terrorism or suspected terrorist activities.

Some 30 respondents commented that staff were more suspicious of Middle Eastern patrons, noted Leigh Estabrook, director of the LRC. “It’s natural, but it’s also disturbing, because of what we are as a profession.”

The political climate definitely has changed, Estabrook observed. The response rate in previous surveys had been over 70 percent. “There is concern in libraries about answering questions,” she said.

Law enforcement at the PL

In the year after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, federal and local law enforcement officials visited 545 (10.7 percent of the total number nationally) libraries to ask for library records. About a third of those visits were from the FBI, but most were from police. Of those libraries visited, 83.1 percent received verbal requests for voluntary cooperation, 8.9 percent had written requests for voluntary cooperation, and 22.3 percent were served with subpoenas and 17.4 percent with court orders.

However, it is not clear what percentage concerned terrorism. Law enforcement officials have long queried libraries about a broad range of cases, such as searching for a noncustodial parent. Indeed, 703 libraries had received records requests in the year before the terrorist attacks.

Still, the report of 545 libraries may be low, because the Patriot Act makes it illegal for persons or institutions to disclose that a search warrant has been served. Some 2.6 percent of respondents (more than 130 libraries of the total) did not completely answer the questions.

“Either libraries have not been inundated with requests, or they’re being very careful about not breaching the secrecy provision,” Estabrook said.

Librarians hang tough

Almost 60 percent of respondents to the LRC survey said they thought the secrecy provision abridges First Amendment rights. Also, asked hypothetically if they would challenge a court order regarding information about a patron by disclosing such a request publicly, 5.5 percent of respondents said they definitely would do so and 16.1 percent said they probably would do so.

Compared with other citizens queried by the Pew Internet Project, librarians are much more likely than the general public to support the public’s right to know. While two-thirds of those in the general population said that the government should remove information from web sites that might potentially help terrorists, even if the American public has a right to know, barely more than one-third of librarians agreed.