Expanded FBI Powers Threaten Library Privacy. (News Fronts: Washington)

American Libraries, August 2002 | Go to article overview

Expanded FBI Powers Threaten Library Privacy. (News Fronts: Washington)


U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft has given the FBI expanded authority for its agents to monitor Internet chat rooms, Web sites, and commercial databases in search of clues to suspected terrorist activities and to initiate inquiries at libraries and other public places without a warrant or even the need to show that a crime was committed.

The new guidelines, announced May 30, allow the FBI to send undercover agents to any event "open to the public"--including political gatherings and places of worship--to look for signs of terrorist or criminal activity. The agency will also be able to collect information on consumers through magazine subscriptions, book purchases, charitable contributions, and travel itineraries.

The expanded powers clash dramatically with the obligation of public libraries to maintain the privacy of their records, an issue that caused consternation when the FBI confiscated library computer records following the terrorist attacks (AL, Nov. 2000, p. 13). The new authority expands the spying power of the agency permitted by the USA Patriot Act, passed hurriedly by Congress in the wake of the September 11 attacks and signed into law by President Bush last October (AL, Dec. 2001, p. 12--13)--legislation that many civil liberties groups found already too broad.

"There could be agents in the library looking at what people are reading, looking over someone's shoulder while they're on the Internet," said American Library Association Washington Office Executive Director Emily Sheketoff. "What I'm afraid of as an American citizen is that they're going to look at the kinds of magazines I subscribe to ... and use that as probable cause" to investigate further.

The House Judiciary Committee wrote to Ashcroft June 13 asking whether the FBI has used the USA Patriot Act "to obtain records from a public library, bookstore, or newspaper." Reps. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), the committee chair, and John Conyers (D-Mich. …

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