In the supersecret world of the nation’s spy agencies, an unassuming librarian like Kirsten Clark at the University of Minnesota might seem like an unlikely mark.
But recent revelations about National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance of phone and Internet traffic have raised concerns among librarians and put them in the front ranks of efforts to curb government bulk data collection operations.
In an alliance that stretches all the political clichés about “strange bedfellows,” librarians and civil libertarians are on the same side as gun activists and Internet giants Facebook and Google in backing bipartisan legislation in Congress that would roll back the federal government’s authority to snoop on Americans. In the past year, their agenda has taken on a global dimension with the revelations of fugitive NSA leaker Edward Snowden.
“When someone posts information to social media, they make the choice in the level of privacy they want to give to others,” said Clark, the Intellectual Committee Chair of the Minnesota Library Association.
“With mass collection of private data, whether library records or cellphone activity, the decision on privacy has been taken away from the individual. The potential harm comes from not knowing what has been collected or how it will be used,” she said.
A federal judge in New York ruled Friday that the massive collection of telephone and Internet data is legal and doesn’t violate the Constitution. The decision was in conflict with another court ruling, in which another federal judge in Washington ruled that some of the NSA’s tactics are likely unconstitutional. That judge, Richard Leon, called some of the government’s snooping operations “almost Orwellian.” He also challenged government assertions that the NSA’s tactics had helped thwart terrorist attacks.
The conflicting rulings raised the prospect of the issue heading to the Supreme Court.
A White House advisory panel gave fresh impetus to reform efforts earlier this month when it recommended sweeping changes to NSA collection of “metadata” on Internet activity and bulk data on Americans’ phone records.
President Obama told reporters in his year-end news conference that although the NSA “is not engaged in domestic surveillance or snooping around … we may have to refine this further to give people more confidence.”
The pressure is certain to be felt when Congress returns in January to take up more than two dozen bills that seek to either curb NSA collection efforts or make them more transparent.
“We now have all three branches of government involved,” said Lynne Bradley, director of government relations for the American Library Association. “I’m cautiously optimistic.”
The Minnesota Library Association, working with its national chapter in Washington, is backing House legislation from Wisconsin Republican James Sensenbrenner that would restrict NSA bulk data sweeps and lift the gag order that forces librarians and other potential targets to be quiet about the requests they receive.
The post 9/11 Patriot Act not only opened library computer logs and book borrowing records to federal agents, it also barred librarians from even acknowledging or talking about government data requests. The upshot is there is no way for the public to know if the NSA or the FBI have tapped such data in Minnesota.
To Clark, that uncertainty is contrary to the spirit of intellectual freedom and research, particularly in an educational setting: “It is the chilling effect that comes from citizens knowing their information-seeking habits might be monitored, which in turn has the potential to limit learning and the freedom to read,” said Clark, regional depository librarian at the University of Minnesota Libraries, where she also serves as interim director of the social sciences and professional programs.
Sensenbrenner’s USA Freedom Act would address librarians’ concerns by raising the legal standards used to justify dragnet-style collection of business records, including library logs and — not incidentally — gun registries and other types of commercial data.
That’s why Sensenbrenner’s bill has won the support of the National Rifle Association (NRA) as well as civil liberties groups such as the ACLU and the American Library Association.
Administration officials emphasize that when it comes to Internet and telephone surveillance, NSA bulk data collection is limited to the timing, duration, and end-points of electronic communications. This so-called metadata does not include the contents of those communications.
But critics emphasize the sweep and scope of those operations, which they say target foreigners by obtaining the communications records of unsuspecting Americans. “The slow trickle of revelations that began in June about NSA spying have exposed the most intrusive and secretive programs in American history,” Sensenbrenner said.
Sensenbrenner, chairman of a House panel on crime, terrorism and homeland security, has teamed up with Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee. In addition to curbing bulk collection of Americans’ communications records, their bill would increase transparency and oversight over the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which approves surveillance warrants against suspected foreign agents inside the country.
So far, they’ve enlisted the support of 18 senators and 115 House members, including Minnesota Democrats Keith Ellison and Betty McCollum.
McCollum said that while monitoring communications is an “essential” security tool, the NSA’s surveillance of law-abiding U.S. citizens is “an abuse of our privacy and basic civil liberties.”
Minnesota Democrats Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken, both members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, have yet to take a position on the bill, though Klobuchar said she favors allowing libraries to publicly disclose government requests for patrons’ data.
Franken, chairman of a Judiciary panel on privacy and technology, has introduced more limited legislation that would require greater transparency in government surveillance programs.
While lobbying giants from Microsoft to the NRA ramp up the pressure in Washington, Clark says individual librarians like her can only do so much. That includes helping students research voting records and contact members of Congress.
NEW ON THE PODCAST