February 16, 2018

Are You Being Watched? | From the Bell Tower

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.



Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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  1. Barbara Fister says:

    This is all very scary. But then again, I’m just as freaked out by the privacy we give up daily to Google, Facebook, Amazon, and others for whom our personal information is the product.

    • StevenB says:

      Kind of scary indeed, but I was glad to learn at National Library Legislative Day that none of the cybersecurity legislation is set in stone, and that we may be able to advocate for improvements.

      As far as privacy, Scott McNealy is looking to be more on target with each passing year.

  2. rjones2818 says:

    Actually, the article’s pretty funny rather than scary. It’s funny in that Bell seems to think that any of this is new or surprising. We’ve allowed ourselves, as a country, to be scared into giving away the house on personal privacy (and may would have giving it up none the less by going along with Google and the rest of the cyber-giants). There isn’t any surprise in the U’s arming themselves, as they’ve pretty much sold out to the corporate-spook-military-government money machine, and dissent is to be questioned, not honored.

    As for the (shhnhh in mentioning them) terrorists and radicals in the libraries, maybe it”s time that the non-terrorists and non-radicals start to use them.

    I thought this was a pretty vile article.

  3. Stephanie says:

    Interesting quote from the article: “the bad news is that Congress is considering several pieces of cybersecurity legislation, most of which would make the Patriot Act look downright citizen friendly.” Note that the Congress and the Presidency are controlled by Liberal Democrats. Where is the press to sound the alarm? Oh that’s right, they are Liberal Democrats, too — along with most academics…ahh, it must be Bush’s fault.

    • Sherry Rhodes says:

      Oh for heaven’s sake…Barack Obama is far from being a “liberal” Democrat. While he’s certainly not a Blue Dog, he’s much more centrist. As far as the Congress being controlled by “liberal Democrats,” the House has 242 Republicans & 190 Democrats, & thus is NOT controlled by Democrats, liberal or otherwise. The Senate has 53 Democrats & 47 Republicans, & thus, while having a majority of Democrats, does not have a supermajority that could prevent filibusters by Republicans. As far as the canard about the press being “liberal Democrats,” while there may be a majority of *reporters* classifying themselves as liberal or Democrats, those in charge of publishing media are not those reporters, but heads of corporations & just as likely, if not more, to be conservatives or Republicans as liberals or Democrats. (For example, I’m quite sure Rupert Murdoch would be rather surprised to be classified as a liberal.)

  4. Kathy Kleckner says:

    We all slip quietly under the wheels of the Surveillance State. My library system installed cameras to watch the public. Didn’t yours? Have you looked lately? Don’t expect them to announce it or discuss it.
    We are losing our freedom and privacy in great swaths.
    There is only the one corporate state, the military-industrial complex and it does not care for peoples’ happiness and freedom. There is no one serving the public interest. The parties are owned by a corporate elite, the 1%. The .01%. The parties are just there to make us feel like we have choice. The sooner we give up that illusion, the better off we will be.

    • Beverly Hansen says:

      As a library worker I can say that the cameras are not for spying on regular patrons, but for the safety of everyone in the library. There are people who come in threatening us every day, and without cameras and security people library workers and patrons alike get assaulted, sometimes very violently. We have had bombings and suicides at the library where I work; that’s why extra security. Don’t make like it’s because we don’t value freedom. Public libraries are some of the last bastions of personal freedom this country has.

    • Abe Lincoln says:

      “The sooner we give up that illusion, the better off we will be.” That is a broad claim, Kathy Kleckner. Perhaps you could share with us how you personally have become “better off”? What is it, specifically, that is better now in your life since adopting this belief? Do you have more wealth, more friends, better relationships, or what?

  5. Space under surveillance is not a bastion of personal freedom. We do value freedom. We just don’t have much of it at all anymore. No one can know with certainty what the cameras get used for. We never know who is watching us. We just can’t know. How does that make you feel?
    Also, I think it is a false security to think that the cameras make anyone safer. I know we are supposed to think they do. They might deter the odd person who is both thoughtful and dangerous but so few that you have to question, it is worth the loss of freedom?
    It sounds like Beverly is in a very violent place. I am sorry to hear of such a library. The problem and solution there is far beyond cameras.

  6. Andrew Sandusky says:

    I am apalled that some, like rjones2818 thinks the Occupy Movement, of which I am PROUD to be a part of, is “radical”. He and his ilk seem to have been swayed by the fear-mongering facistas who have convinced our nation that the only way to win the war on terrorism is to wage war against the bastions of freedom our nation was founded upon.

    I think it is absolutely necessary those few of us who consider freedom of speech, the press and assembly finally get our act together and keep Big Brother out of our libraries.

    • rjones2818 says:

      You miss the point (amazingly). The “shhnhh” should have alerted you to it. Keeping ‘radicals’ and ‘terrorists’ from using the library is just another step toward keeping you and me from using the library. Who decides who the ‘terrorist’ or ‘radical’ is? Hmmm? Is there some objective standard, or is it just who gets labeled as such for no particular reason other than they may be looking up some forbidden bit of information?

      Instead, I’m pointing out that those who would support such an action should perhaps actually use the library to broaden their horizons.

      I’m sorry you missed the point.