Libraries fear 'ravenous' NSA

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The nation’s libraries are backing legislation that would curb the powers of the National Security Agency.

Revelations about NSA surveillance have created a “climate of concern” for libraries, which are seeking to defend the freedom to read and research away from the government’s prying eyes.

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“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,” said Alan Inouye, director of the Office for Information Technology Policy at the American Library Association (ALA).

Government snooping of libraries has a long history. Under the Patriot Act, for example, the FBI has the power to compel libraries to hand over user data.

But the activities of the NSA seem to go far beyond traditional police work, reflecting an “almost ravenous hunger” for collecting information, according to Lynne Bradley, director of the ALA’s Office of Government Relations.

Documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden show the NSA has been collecting vast troves of “metadata” on Internet activity and phone calls that shows when communications were made, who was involved and how long it lasted.

That’s especially troubling to the ALA, as “libraries are all about metadata,” Inouye said.

The records that libraries keep — when a user logs on to a library computer, what websites they visit, when books are borrowed and returned — seem to fit the mold of what the NSA is seeking.

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

While no libraries are known to have received NSA requests, that doesn’t mean they haven’t been tapped for data.

Just like Internet companies, libraries are prohibited from revealing NSA requests. The ALA is concerned that local libraries are being forced to keep quiet about government snooping.

“We don’t know what we don’t know,” Bradley said.

Libraries are right to be concerned about the NSA’s activities, according to Greg Nojeim, director of the Center for Democracy and Technology’s Project on Freedom, Security and Technology.

“There are a variety of legal authorities that the government can use to compel libraries to turn over information,” he said.
“The concern is certainly legitimate.”

The Library Association is backing legislation from Rep. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), known as the USA Freedom Act, and joining with other advocacy groups in pushing it.

The bill would, among other things, lift the gag order that comes with an NSA surveillance request.

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

The ALA’s involvement in the surveillance debate is part of a broader expansion of the group’s advocacy in Washington.

In November, the association received a $1 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to increase its advocacy presence in Washington.

Traditionally, libraries have been active in the policy world when responding to things that have already happened. Thanks to the grant funding, the ALA says that’s about to change.

“One of the central tenets of this initiative is to be more proactive,” Inouye said.

A top concern is copyright policy and the rise of e-books, which they say could create a financial strain for library systems.

While libraries pay a set price for physical books, they have to pay higher licensing fees on a recurring basis to loan out electronic copies.

Inouye said the Department of Commerce’s recent green paper on copyright policy was “very heavy on copyright protection,” but gave little attention to how that might affect public access.

Libraries are “concerned that this enforcement goes too far,” Inouye said. As with surveillance for national security concerns, “we need a balance.”

Another major policy issue for libraries is increasing funding for Internet access.

Larra Clark, program director of ALA’s America’s Libraries for the 21st Century project, pointed to the Federal Communications Commission’s E-Rate program, which provides funding to help libraries and schools provide Internet access to their constituents.

President Obama has called on the Federal Communications Commission to increase E-Rate funding, and the FCC is considering changes to the program in response.

As libraries become places where community members not only access websites but download and upload data heavy material, libraries need more funding for broadband, Clark said.

“The need for this influx is pretty immediate,” she said.