Someone to Watch Over What You Read
By Glenn Weiser
Metroland - July 11, 2002

Written when the national media reported that the FBI has been visiting libraries under powers granted to it by the USA PATRIOT act. - GW
Late last month, the press reported that FBI agents had begun to visit libraries across the nation seeking the reading records of individuals suspected of having ties to terrorist organizations. Such searches, which require warrants and have also included bookstores and newspapers, are now legal under the U.S.A. Patriot Act signed by President George W. Bush last October, which greatly increased the surveillance powers of the federal government. Concerned about how this latest chapter in Uncle Sam's ongoing morph into Big Brother could affect free speech, civil libertarians and many librarians have expressed opposition to the searches. But details of the government's move are scarce: The Patriot Act also has a gag provision that makes it a crime for librarians to reveal any information about what, or how much, the FBI wants to see.

When asked if the G-men had been around to see them, directors of the public libraries of Albany, Schenectady, Troy and Saratoga Springs all said they had not. And while no news may be goods news, umbrage among local librarians over the searches is still high. Calling the confidentiality of patrons' reading records "a bastion of the First Amendment," Albany Public Library Director Jeffrey Cannell noted that under the Patriot Act, it is now much easier for the government to get a search warrant for a library.

Harry Dutcher, director of the Saratoga Public Library, echoed Cannell, saying, "The confidentiality of our patrons' reading records is very important to us." He questioned the legality of the searches under state confidentiality laws, and added that terrorists would probably be more interested in university libraries for their science literature than public libraries, anyway.

Reading records in the Capital Region, however, are better protected from prying eyes than you might think. Dutcher explained that usual practice in most local public libraries is to keep a record of who has borrowed a book only when the book is out. Upon its return, the library's computer software automatically deletes the record. The books thus leave no electronic footprint.

Cannell also forwarded a statement on the FBI searches from Maurice J. Freedman, president of the American Library Association. After acknowledging the importance of the war against terrorism, it says, "The American Library Association is concerned about the provisions of the U.S.A. Patriot Act that allow the FBI to seek information on Americans' reading habits, as if it were possible to determine what someone might do based upon what he or she has read.

"This wide-ranging federal surveillance of library records is a troubling development that will have a chilling effect on the public's use of library resources. When someone checks out a book or looks at the Internet, it does not mean they agree with the information they find or that they intend to act on that information. Librarians will continue to fight for their government interference."

List of Metroland Stories by Glenn Weiser                          2002 by Glenn Weiser. All rights reserved.

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