Librarians around the Bay Area have been celebrating after the US Senate passed a measure reforming a notorious section of the Patriot Act Tuesday.
Section 215, passed right after 9/11, gave the National Security Agency and the FBI wide powers to request information on the activities of library users without a warrant.
“It really lowered the legal standard at getting at records,” says Deborah Caldwell-Stone, Director of Office of Intellectual Freedom at the American Library Association.
She and others argue that libraries are a sacred space for democracy. They are places for people to find books and use computers to access any subject, no matter how controversial, without the government looking over their shoulder. And Caldwell-Stone says that’s a right protected by the first amendment.
“Inevitably anyone who thinks they’re being observed,” says Caldwell-Stone, “is going to curtail what they read in some way, because they’re afraid of being sanctioned some way.”
The library association has lobbied hard for the reforms, dubbed the Freedom Act, which were passed last month by the House and by the Senate on Tuesday.
The bill limits what law enforcement agencies, including the National Security Agency (NSA), can request from libraries.
“Instead of obtaining just giant swathes of information in bulk,” says Sarah Houghton, San Rafael Public Library Director, and a leading critic of the Patriot Act, “the NSA has to ask for data, but on a very specific entity. But they also have to demonstrate that that individual is associated with a foreign power or terrorist group or other threat of some kind. So that is a huge change.”
The reforms also make it harder for the FBI to impose a gag order on librarians when they're served with what are called National Security Letters demanding information on a patron. At least Houghton hopes that’s the case. “Much is left unsaid about how this will be executed in practice.”
In fact San Jose City Librarian Jill Bourne says Bay Area libraries have had standards in place for years to protect the privacy of their patrons.
“We actually don’t keep a lot of information,” Bourne says. “And that’s intentional. So when a person checks in a library book it is expunged from their record. When you look online, our systems are set up to erase the cache for every user. So we wouldn’t necessarily have a lot of data for them to look at.”
But Bourne notes those protections only go so far because libraries get access to the internet from large telecom companies. “We can’t really guarantee our patrons,” she says, “that the information that goes out through the internet couldn’t be reportable by that telecommunications company… And so we’ve kind of shifted into the business of educating our patrons around privacy issues online, and how to protect themselves.”
Bourne says that’s why the San Jose library is developing a game app with the Knight Foundation that would educate people about how to protect their online privacy.