Librarians: privacy's champions #1yrago

Libraries have always been places where people gathered for intellectual inquiry, where communities could form around emerging ideologies that challenged the status quo.

Naturally that means that governments have often viewed them as a convenient place to spy on possible loose cannons, putting librarians on the front lines of the war on intellectual privacy.

Librarians like Alison Macrina (whose work I wrote about here are part of the vanguard of privacy activism in libraries, hosting cryptoparties and giving workshops to librarians and patrons on advanced information ninja-ry.

The post-9/11 world made librarians the canaries in the privacy coalmines. Libraries weren’t the only institutions that the spies targeted for secret surveillance, but they were the institutions that fought back the hardest.

There’s an intellectually lazy view of libraries that holds that they’ve been made irrelevant by the Internet. In an excellent history of privacy and anti-surveillance activism in libraries, Zoë Carpenter gives us a snapshot of libraries as more relevant than ever in the digital age. Libraries aren’t book-lined Internet cafes, they’re book-lined, computer-filled information-dojos where communities come together to teach each other black-belt information literacy, where initiates work alongside noviates to show them how to master the tools of the networked age from the bare metal up.

The rebellion eventually attracted enough attention that in a September 2003 speech, Attorney General John Ashcroft attacked the librarians directly, accusing them of “baseless hysteria.” Records had not been sought from libraries under Section 215, Ashcroft insisted, and the FBI had no interest in “checking how far you have gotten on the latest Tom Clancy novel.” Ashcroft used the word “hysteria” five other times throughout the speech, and then again a few days later during a speech in Memphis.

“In a field dominated by women, to use the word ‘hysterical’ is pejorative in the extreme,” said George Christian, the executive director of a Connecticut consortium called Library Connection. “That got my goat,” he added. Nevertheless, Christian and many of his colleagues “took [Ashcroft] at his word that librarians were not being targeted.” Christian took a few precautions—establishing a policy that any information requests from law enforcement would go directly to him, for example—and then he “went on to other priorities.”

Two years later, a pair of FBI agents served him a national-security letter demanding that he surrender “all subscriber information, billing information and access logs of any person” who had used a particular computer at one of the libraries he managed. The letter included a gag order forbidding Christian from discussing its contents with “any person.”

Christian refused to comply and called his lawyer. For almost a year, he and three colleagues, represented by the ACLU and identified in court documents only as John Does, fought the request and gag order. The identities of the Connecticut Four, as the plaintiffs came to be known, were eventually revealed by The Washington Post’s Barton Gellman, who wrote that their case “affords a rare glimpse of an exponentially growing practice of domestic surveillance under the Patriot Act,” which “transformed [national-security letters] by permitting clandestine scrutiny of US residents and visitors who are not alleged to be terrorists or spies.” The FBI was issuing some 30,000 NSLs each year, Gellman reported, with no review from a prosecutor, jury, or judge.

Librarians on the vanguard of the anti-surveillance movement #1yrago

The American Library Association’s code of ethics demands that library professionals “protect each library user’s right to privacy and confidentiality” and they’ve been taking that duty seriously since the first days of the Patriot Act.

The history of libraries in the post-9/11 fight is a proud and honorable one, with librarians putting their jobs and honor on the line to stand up for the right of people to conduct intellectual inquiry without government surveillance, and to stand against secret wiretaps that come with perpetual gag orders. And it’s a tradition that continues today, with projects like Alison Macrina’s series of cryptoparties and workshops for her patrons in Massachusetts.

Everywhere I go, I meet librarians who believe in these principles and take a stand for it. One Bay Area high school librarian told me how the FBI demanded that she turn over all her school’s yearbooks, back to the 1950s, without a warrant. When she told them that they’d need to get one, they leaned on her, asking her why she didn’t want to help out law enforcement efforts.

“My father was an SFPD detective,” she replied. “And he taught me that cops need warrants.”

They never came back.

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