Big Brother at the Bookstore and Library

Well-worn library and member cards

Well-worn library and member cards

One of the troubling aspects of modern life is how much data about us is stored in various computer data centers. Shopping at my local grocery, I use my shopper card to receive discounts on groceries and fuel while providing the grocer a whole profile of my shopping habits that allows them to customize coupons to my shopping tastes. Every online vendor collects similar data and cookies on our computers track our browsing habits. Health records are maintained on a number of sites. My cell provider has data on all my phone activity and even where I make calls from and where I am (or my phone is) at any given moment. A quick Google search of my address provides information of the appraised value of my home, how many bedrooms and bathrooms we have, and how much I pay in property tax. And this blog and other social media sites provide a substantial amount of information about me. Much of this is done with my knowledge and consent (whether I’ve read those disclosures or not). And most of the time I don’t trouble myself that much, except when this information is compromised by hackers, which seems to happen with disconcerting frequency.

What the Edward Snowden affair made clear is how much of our information is vacuumed up unbeknownst to us through NSA monitoring. The reality is that we probably should assume that very little of what we do, and nothing of our online lives, is private. What may not have occurred to us is that even our bookstore and library searches, if tied to an account (a library card or shopping card, for example, or our name) are also subject to search and seizure without our knowledge under the Patriot Act. Under current laws, according to an article in The Nation, federal authorities may seize any “tangible” thing considered relevant to a terrorism investigation and workers are under gag orders not to disclose these seizures.

What librarians facing this issue have done are to post warnings of patrons that their library internet activity and searches may be monitored. Some have gone so far as to pro-actively destroy wait-lists, caches, and other records. One librarian quoted in The Nation article commented that “It used to be a librarian would be pictured with a book…. Now it is a librarian with a shredder.”

Section 215 of the Patriot Act that permits these kinds of seizures is due to expire on June 1. According to a Publishers Weekly article a coalition of booksellers, authors, readers, and librarians is pressing for the passage of a USA Freedom Act which would restore some privacy protections. It would not eliminate information requests but limit the scope of requests by requiring individual account information under an individualized standard of suspicion.

My personal opinion? While this is an improvement, it does seem that we have eviscerated the Fourth Amendment that reads:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

These searches involve search orders but no warrant issued from a judge’s bench, nor are these orders presented to the person whose records are being searched. It is all done in secrecy. The truth is, as I’ve already stated, we should probably assume that nothing we do on a phone, with a credit or shopping or membership card, or do online or give others permission to store online is private and we can expect that it may be accessed without our knowledge. But to justify warrantless, secret searches as protecting a free and democratic society is to delude ourselves. That ship has sailed.

Something to consider the next time you check out a library book or use your Barnes and Noble card to buy the latest best-seller.

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