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reading over your shoulder

Many years ago, I worked in a community college library as a ciruclation supervisor.

One day a mother of a student came in to speak to me. She explained that she was sure there was something wrong with her daughter, that the daughter was hiding something terrible from her. If she could just look at the books her child had taken out recently (as she knew her daughter spent a lot of time in the library), perhaps she could discern what the problem was.

I had no idea what the rules and regulations for this sort of thing were; I hadn't been prepared something like this. I had a feeling there would be some kind of privacy law regarding this thing, so I talked out of my ass for a few minutes, citing statutes and laws that prohibit the divulging of such personal information. Besides, I told the mother, we were not yet computerized like some of the bigger libraries. Everything was done by hand and it would be near impossible to figure out what her daughter had been reading.

The woman then went over my head to one of the directors of the library. He took pity on her and said he would see what he could do. As (the mother's) luck would have it, her daughter had several overdue books, so her name and the cards for those books were on file.

It seems she had been taking out books on both abortion and adoption. To further fuel the mother's suspicions, the director also discovered that the daughter had photocopied several articles on the emotional effects of abortion, and on giving up a child for adoption.

I don't know what happened between that mother and child after that. For all anyone knows, the girl was doing research for a project. Perhaps our director unwittingly started a family argument where none should have taken place. Perhaps he gave the mother reason to distrust her daughter.

That story is just part of the reason why I am strongly against Section 215 of the Patriot Act.

Section 215: Access to Records Under Foreign Intelligence Security Act (FISA)

Allows an FBI agent to obtain a search warrant for “any tangible thing,” which can include books, records, papers, floppy disks, data tapes, and computers with hard drives.

Permits the FBI to compel production of library circulation records, Internet use records, and registration information stored in any medium.

Does not require the agent to demonstrate “probable cause,” the existence of specific facts to support the belief that a crime has been committed or that the items sought are evidence of a crime. Instead, the agent only needs to claim that he believes that the records he wants may be related to an ongoing investigation related to terrorism or intelligence activities, a very low legal standard.

Libraries or librarians served with a search warrant issued under FISA rules may not disclose, under of penalty of law, the existence of the warrant or the fact that records were produced as a result of the warrant. A patron cannot be told that his or her records were given to the FBI or that he or she is the subject of an FBI investigation.

Overrides state library confidentiality laws protecting library records.

While at first glance it may seem that this part of the Patriot Act is used merely to combat terrorism, you can imagine that the powers-that-be can find loophole upon loophole to to use this act to extract information that has nothing to do with terrorism at all.

The thought that there is even the slightest chance that what we do is being watched by those above us is enough to make me wary about what books I check out or buy.

What would a government agency make of the list of reading material you have purchased or took out from the library lately? Granted, they should have a cause for caring about your reading habits but one never knows what might make the men in black decide that you need to be watched. Could be someone called 1-800-TIPS and told them about all of your anti-Bush rumblings on your website? Maybe your neighbor fears that mound of fertilizer in your back yard because she heard that it could be used to make bombs, so she dials 911 and says she has a potential terrorist living next door to her. Have you shown up at any kind of protest lately? Belong to an anarachist group? Condemned the Patriot Act on a message board? Sent a joking email to a friend who works in a government building that you wanted to kill your boss?

Don't kid yourself. You are being watched. If not by the government then by your neighbors, your teachers, the traffic light with a camera installed inside.

It will only take one instance of an expired registration on your car or a bumper sticker that says "Repeal the Patriot Act" or purchasing a book about terrorism that will give them cause to ask your library to turn over an entire printout of books you have read since the fifth grade.

Look, she took out "How to Eat Fried Worms" four times last year!
Isn't fried worms a delicacy in Pakistan?
You're right! Seize her!

The one thing we can do is not be afraid. Go ahead and take out that book on semi-automatic guns. Buy that Soldier of Fortune magazine. Look up articles on Hitler on the library's computer. We have nothing to fear but the fear police themselves. And when they come to get us, we can beat them down with the heavy weighted copies of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Of course, we'll be dragged away for practicing witchcraft then, and they'll claim you turned one of the agents into a newt while they tried to arrest you.

Celebrate your Freedom to Read. Really, if you can't check out Goodnight Moon without some spying fool going off on a wide tangent and assuming you are about to Nuke the Moon, then the terrorists have one.


Listed below are links to weblogs that reference reading over your shoulder:

Michele over at A Small Victory has a great post about the dangers of the Patriot Act's grant to Federal law enforcement the power to go through library records.What would a government agency make of the list of reading material... [Read More]


Well said. Oops, now I've got an FBI file! That's OK. I've got a file on them.

Anarchist's Cookbook anyone?


Link might not work for everyone, but be sure to add it to your site anyway.

VILLAGER #1: If... she.. weighs the same as a duck, she's made of wood.
BEDEMIR: And therefore--?
VILLAGER #1: A witch!
CROWD: A witch!
BEDEMIR: We shall use my larger scales!
BEDEMIR: Right, remove the supports!
CROWD: A witch! A witch!
WITCH: It's a fair cop.
CROWD: Burn her! Burn! [yelling]

I generally read your site every day but now I'm struck by the irony of this post. Previously you had bashed some liberals who posted on here as bashing Bush because of the freedoms we've lost during his time in office, saying they were smoking something (or general lines thereof).

Yet now your making a post about how ridiculus the Patriot Act is in some (actually most) of its clauses/sections. Thats...a little ironic.

Euguene Volokh, volokh.com, claims that the FBI as well as most every other law enforcement agency, has always had the power to get records from public libraries. He writes that section 215 doesn't actually change anything.

He's only a law professor at a state school in CA (UCLA), so maybe he's talking through his hat.

say goodbye to "innocent until proven guilty!"

man, i hate when people say "if you've done nothing wrong, then you've got nothing to worry about." it's so hard to explain to them that all it takes is one asshole to accuse you of something, and you're fucked.

Contrary to hysterical outbursts by librarians, the clauses in question are in the PATRIOT Act because the 9/11 conspirators took advantage of public libraries and Kinkos internet kiosks to send and receive operational information and engage in research to plan their attacks.

Under restrictions implemented following the Church Commission in 1974, the FBI couldn't go digging around in such material without all sorts of warrants, and special permission, and so forth. The warrant requirement is still in place; it's just that the FBI is allowed to look there now.

Oh yeah, and they can do Google searches, which they weren't allowed to do before.

The FBI isn't doing this stuff to chill abortion rights, or to intimidate the brave librarians who keep a copy of Catcher in the Rye in the library. They are doing it because pissing off the ALA and assorted activists is better, in their minds, than allowing another murderous Al Qaida cell to operate with impunity, taking knowing advantage of wide open loopholes in federal investigative authority.

I need to make my post a bit clearer - the restrictions were imposed internally, in response to the Church Commission's clamping down on FBI abuses. Many things that federal law enforcement does by way of "self control" are often in response to congressional threats and concerns, raised legitimately in the course of congressional oversight.

Good lord, calm down, it's not like there are armies of FBI agents grabbing people's library records just incase. You actually have to have a case opened on a person and that case has to be predicated on some cause. Unless you're associating with known terrorists or providing support and aid to terrorist organizations, I don't think you have anything to worry about.

Bill, you're sight on this one seems me a tad too light. Sure, noone might be doing it - right now. But as pointed out in her post an din some comments, all it needs is a reason and you're in the middle of a drama, if deserved or not. Sure - if you do obey the law all the time there's nothing to fear - the mantra of the dumbminded. But what's okay now might change, and what will be then? Being a Jew was okay in germany for many years. But then - for some really unexpected, that changed and they were in the middle of the worst shit ever. (might be a bit eaxaggerated, but I try to make clear the point)

(Hi boys!)

Every part of that act sounds a whole lot like communism to me. A lot of "Be a good citizen! Spy on your neighbors!" sort of crap. And many parts of it (if not all of it) are open to broad interpretation.

And to "Bill's right" in response to Unless you're associating with known terrorists or providing support and aid to terrorist organizations, I don't think you have anything to worry about I'd amend that to say "Unless someone ACCUSES YOU OF..."

And look...I even had the balls to sign my name.

The problem, as always, is how do you balance a government's legitimate ability to use information, with the general governmental propensity to abuse every power ever given at some point.

The simplest cure is for libraries not to keep patron specific records after the books are returned; nothing in the law compels libraries to keep records, and (with the exception of keeping records for purposes of overdue books), its arguable that the library has no legitimate need to track individual reading habits in the first place. Collective reading habits, yes (so you know what's popular in your area, and therefore what to buy), but not individual ones.

But really.... how is the ability to track what you read anyything new, or any different from the ability to track who you associate with (phone records), or where you shop (credit cards and bank records)?

yes, they're listening. the good news from our perspective is the government gets put into a technological and existential bind:
1. structuring the data in a way that's retrievable quickly (basically impossible)
2. after learning that much about people, not becoming so bored or jaded that they don't care what anyone does.

let 'em look all they want ... it'll be like their watching 10 million episodes of Jerry Springer, every day, and having to write down what happens and put it in files. You think after a while they won't just turn the damned set off ...

Sorry folks, if you think that the FBI etc. couldn't do things of this nature before the Patriot Act, welcome to adulthood.

I cannot even grant you the 'new' accusations of terrorism. After Oklahoma City I had to watch as folks I knew were investigated with fine tooth combs for having more than one range membership + owning multiple DCM program guns. And I live in Seattle, not Michigan. The FBI went as far as to come to some of their places of employment to talk to them.Try explaining that to your boss.

I hope I don't come off as sounding paranoid. I don't hang out at the DU nor do I think the FBI etc are out to get me. I just know that the PA is just a formality.

It's true that the vast quantity of data collected will just be white noise to the government. However, if they decide for some reason to look at YOU in particular, the situation becomes much more problematic. Then you're suddenly in a very difficult position, especially if whoever is investgating you either has an axe to grind or honestly - but mistakenly - believes you're guilty of something.

A favorite practice of anti-liberty folks on the far left and the far right has always been to try to force their enemies into a position of having to prove their innocence - a basically impossible task. Denouncing the Patriot Act is NOT equivalent to stating that the government is hopelessly corrupt. It's simply asserting that in our free society, we ought to avoid making it too easy for anyone who isn't pure of heart (now or in the future) to intimidate and terrorize the rest of us. We do have glaring examples from our not-too-distant past to prove that it's not merely a theoretical concern.

While I find the Patriot Act dissettling to say the least, it's only tangentally related to the anecdote the post is based upon. A mom should be intrusive, if something happens that she could have prevented by paying more attention.... Well, I would n't want to live in that hell.

Is it just me, or do I think that Ashcroft et al are leading us down the path of McCarthyism mark II? In high school, I read (end enjoyed) Arthur Miller's "The Crucible", and reassured myself that we as a society had learnt a lot from the "Red's Under the Bed" paranoia on the 50's.

Apparently not. So where is "The Land of the Free" now?

I have a friend that used to be in miliary intellegence (..insert 'no oxymoron intended' clause here..) - and one of his favorite sayings was:

Just 'cause you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you!

Anybody feel a compusion to go out and buy up copies of 'Catcher in the Rye'? With cash, of course, and preferably with the 'old' style bills that didn't have the embeded stipe that made tracing them so much easier....


I don't think the terrorists were interested in the message of Catcher in the Rye, so I doubt that (this time) the FBI will be too concerned about teenagers reading about the exploits of a neurotic Fifties-era preppie.

That being said, there has always been a struggle in this country concerning national security versus the right of citizens to not have their rights violated. The struggle will never be over, I am afraid: unless we want to fall into complacency. Freedom isn't free, etc., etc. Like everyone else, I want to have my cake and eat it too: I want to be 100% protected from crazy terrorists, and I want to be 100% left alone by government agencies (until I need them, of course). Neither of what I want can be fulfilled 100%. The only thing I know is that we aren't helping the situation by going into a panic and screaming "McCarthyism! McCarthyism! Awk! Awk! Awk!"

Several posters above are right that this is not new with the Patriot Act (an Orwellian name if there ever was one). Here in Denver Joyce Meskis, owner of the Tattered Cover bookstore (best independent in the country; even the Derb said so!) spent a year fighting off a subpeona brought in the trial of some biker who had bought a book on meth manufacture. She won, but again, it took a year and a phalanx of lawyers. If the PA strengthens the ability of law enforcement to go after people like Meskis, it's a bad law. Very, very bad.

until this came up I wasn't aware that library recoeds were confidential...

Libraries are a wholly extraneous public service--wonderful, to be sure, but not exactly 'needed'

And no one makes you use them. To avoid the dangers of using a government service and having the government have access to the records of the service it provides to you, simply don't use the service in question.

I am not in favor of intrusive government--I prefer a less is more approach (for less read 'as close to none as possible and still have flush toilets') but I think this is nothing more than the manufacture of an issue.

Do I seem cynical? I've read the restrictions on how this is supposed to work--it IS quite restricted--and the fuss seems contrived. Lefty librarians taking a brave stand against Bush's fascist state..blah blah blah.

Regarding the screaming about McCartyism, those dratted Verona decrypts show that there were, in fact, 'reds under the beds', so please shut up about it, okay? Your pravda died when the Russians started 'fessing up about Soviet activity.

The FBI isn't doing this stuff to chill abortion rights, or to intimidate the brave librarians who keep a copy of Catcher in the Rye in the library. They are doing it because pissing off the ALA and assorted activists is better, in their minds, than allowing another murderous Al Qaida cell to operate with impunity...

Ah, the old "we'll only use this against terrorists" argument.

Our government is built with safegaurds in place to prevent abuses. A good example is the checks and balances in the structure of political leaders: the president can overrule congress at times but can't do such and such without congress ' say. Works the same way with law enforcement. Yes the FBI could snoop around before the Patriot Act, but it required warrants, documentation and the eventual defendant had to be notified (an individual's check against the power of the state). Once those safegaurds are removed, law enforcement officers will use the act to investigate everything, terrorist related or not. You or a friend or family member may very well be the next victim, and nothing to do with terrorism in the least.

I say: give into the fearmongering and you are with the terrorists.