Nation’s Libraries Warn of NSA’s ‘Ravenous Hunger’ for Data

By Andrea Germanos
Common Dreams

The world’s largest library association is warning against the NSA’s “ravenous hunger” for information and is urging the passage of legislation to rein in the agency’s vast surveillance powers.

As whistleblower Edward Snowden exposed, the NSA has been collecting “metadata,” and that’s particularly concerning for libraries, because, as Alan Inouye, director of the Office for Information Technology Policy at the American Library Association (ALA), told The Hill, “libraries are all about metadata.”

“We’re talking about the information patterns of people. If that’s not personal, I don’t know what is,” he said.

“You need to have some freedom to learn about what you think is important without worrying about whether it ends up in some FBI file.”

“We don’t want [library patrons] being surveilled because that will inhibit learning, and reading, and creativity,” Inouye told The Hill.

The NSA’s activities reflect an “almost ravenous hunger” for collecting information, Lynne Bradley, director of the ALA’s Office of Government Relations, added.

The group’s “concern is certainly legitimate,” Greg Nojeim, director of the Center for Democracy and Technology’s Project on Freedom, Security and Technology, told the paper, because “there are a variety of legal authorities that the government can use to compel libraries to turn over information.”

Further, it’s possible that the NSA has demanded local libraries fork over patron data, but they would not be allowed to reveal that those requests were made.

Due to these concerns, the ALA has joined other groups in supporting the proposed USA FREEDOM Act from Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), which would amend the sweeping powers of Section 215 of the Patriot Act. The ACLU has praised the legislation saying that, while imperfect, it proposes “real spy reform.”

The ALA has long opposed privacy-encroaching surveillance.

In June as the wave of NSA revelations made possible by Snowden first began, the ALA joined a diverse group including CorpWatch, Greenpeace USA and reddit in writing a letter to Congress stating that the “blanket data collection” revealed by Snowden “strikes at bedrock American values of freedom and privacy. This dragnet surveillance violates the First and Fourth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution, which protect citizens’ right to speak and associate anonymously and guard against unreasonable searches and seizures that protect their right to privacy. We are calling on Congress to take immediate action to halt this surveillance and provide a full public accounting of the NSA’s and the FBI’s data collection programs.”

Weeks later, the ALA passed a resolution in which it called upon the US government “to reform our nation’s climate of secrecy, overclassification, and secret law regarding national security and surveillance, to align with these democratic principles.”

The ALA sounded alarm on privacy violations in the PATRIOT Act since its origin over a decade ago, but notes that “Even the most cynical among us could not have predicted that the Obama Administration… would allow a massive surveillance program to infringe upon the basic civil liberties of innocent, unsuspecting people.”

In an open letter to members penned in July, ALA President Barbara Stripling wrote, in part:

When we spoke out in 2001 against the passage of the PATRIOT Act, we were concerned about Section 215, a provision of the law that allowed the government powers to obtain “business records and other tangible things” from suspected terrorists. We were fearful that the government would come into libraries without warning and take library records on individual patrons without reasonable suspicion. Libraries were one of the first groups to publicly oppose the bill, and many legislators and privacy experts have noted that Congress would not have understood the chilling impact on privacy if librarians had not brought it to the nation’s attention. Librarians were so vocal in their opposition to the law that Section 215 was called the “library provision.” We could not have imagined then what is happening today. Today, in spite of the leak allegations, the government continues to use the “library provision” to vacuum up private communication records of Americans on a massive scale.

Even the most cynical among us could not have predicted that the Obama Administration—an administration that campaigned on the promise of greater government transparency and openness—would allow a massive surveillance program to infringe upon the basic civil liberties of innocent, unsuspecting people. We understand the responsibility of the government to investigate terrorism and other harmful acts. But the need to protect the public does not mean that Americans have to relinquish their Fourth Amendment privacy rights in the process. ALA has already joined other civil liberties groups to call for more legal review, judicial oversight, transparency and public accountability. Our country needs to find the right balance.

We need to restore the balance between individual rights and terrorism prevention, and libraries are one of the few trusted American institutions that can lead true public engagement on our nation’s surveillance laws and procedures.

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